My “Challenge to the Left” has provoked a fair amount of discussion and pushback (the latter mostly on Facebook and Twitter, as well as on email listserves, or so I’m told). Part of the problem with this discussion, to my mind, is that very few people have a real sense of what organizing entails. One of the ones who does have a sense is Jay Driskell, a talented young historian at Hood College. Jay offered some thoughts on my Facebook page, and I asked him to turn them into a blog post. So here it is.
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Since the defeat of Tuesday’s recall effort in Wisconsin, there has been a lot of debate over whether it was a good idea to hitch the energies of the February 2011 occupation of the State Capitol to the vehicle of electoral politics. Many have questioned the relationship between the labor movement and the Democratic Party and how that relationship—not to mention “union bosses”—tamps down worker militancy.
I’m sympathetic to that critique, but I’d like to offer another perspective.
In the weeks following the introduction of Walker’s bill stripping public workers of the right to organize, several unions affiliated with the South Central Federation of Labor voted to endorse a general strike should the state legislature pass Walker’s bill. Most folks I know in Wisconsin, however (none of them “labor bosses”), counseled against it. Why?
First, aside from a militant core of people willing to occupy the Capitol and face arrest (and those with the free time to attend seemingly endless meetings), most folks who would have had to participate in that strike were too scared of losing their jobs for something that might not have worked at all. What the advocates of the general strike in Wisconsin were up against here were not “labor bosses” demobilizing otherwise radical workers but the same old thing that every organizer contends with: fear and hopelessness.
Overcoming that fear and hopelessness entails a good deal of organizing—that is, reaching out to strangers and artificially creating a solidarity that did not previously exist. It was the work of organizing that sustained the last fifteen months of mass mobilization. This work remains largely invisible to the armchair quarterbacks of the punditocracy. The relationships forged in the process of organizing a mass movement are easy to forget in the pain of losing a hard fought battle.
I learned this lesson as an organizer for the Graduate Employees and Students Organization (GESO), the union for graduate teachers and researchers at Yale University.
In 2003, we held an election supervised by the League of Women Voters, which we narrowly lost by a vote of 694 to 651. That election was my first experience of truly losing a battle that mattered to me, and it would have been easy to throw my hands up to say that it was the death knell for GESO, hole up in my ivory tower and write radical books about struggles long since over. We had been fighting to get Yale to recognize our union since 1987: sixteen years later, we got rejected by a majority of our colleagues (including a few close friends, who later told me that they voted against the union.)
The reason I didn’t give up was because of what historian Michael Denning told us at the rally we held the morning of the election: the most radical thing a union can do is to forge solidarity among a group of folks whose companionship they didn’t choose. By and large, we don’t choose our co-workers. They are chosen for us by the employer who hired us. We must build a community with them, whether we like them or not.
Hell, anyone can stick up for someone who thinks like themselves and looks like themselves. The real challenge is building a union or a movement alongside people who aren’t like you, who maybe make you uncomfortable and who maybe you don’t like. (And being a working-class kid who almost didn’t go to college and then wound up at Yale, there were plenty of people I didn’t like.) At the same time, you have to ask these strangers to do something that probably scares them—and maybe they don’t like you all that much either. Therein lies some of the most difficult—and some of the most important—work that unions do when they organize successfully.
In such a deeply divided state as Wisconsin, this forging of a solidarity among strangers ranks among the most important things unions can do. (Case in point, Wisconsin is the only state where I have been driven off the road by a pro-lifer. My crime: a pro-woman, pro-choice bumper sticker).
I’d wager that during the recall election even getting some folks to vote for Barrett in redder parts of the state—to publicly come out against Walker—took an act of real courage. They didn’t face guns, but they possibly faced the opposition of their fathers and mothers, husbands and wives, boyfriends and girlfriends, coworkers and bosses. And, since almost nobody is born with that level of courage, someone had to reach out to that voter and build a relationship of solidarity, from which that person could draw the strength necessary to be brave enough to put a Barrett sticker on their car.
Ella Baker, one of the most talented civil rights organizers of the twentieth century, once said “strong people don’t need strong leaders.” But, as Baker understood, strong people don’t exist in a vacuum. People are made strong by their relationships.
Having once been a Republican (I come from a long line of Reagan Democrats), my special job in GESO was to organize those graduate students who were either libertarians or conservatives or who did not seem like likely candidates for mounting the barricades. This was a group of folks who did not necessarily like me all that much at first (some still don’t) but whose support we needed to get to a majority.
Week after week, I’d knock on their door and find them after they taught, show up to their parties (I can be a real pain in the ass!) and eventually we’d talk and keep talking. If we got through enough of our ideological disagreements, what remained at the heart of their opposition to the union was a fear of retribution by their advisors (whether those advisors were radical, liberal, or conservative didn’t seem to matter all that much). And as people wrestled with this fear, the next question they faced was whether or not joining the union, signing a public petition, or going on strike was worth all that risk. Fear and hopelessness.
I failed a lot. But not always. I met with one guy—still a good friend—every week for months and months before he finally signed his union card. After he joined, it took me another six months to get him on the organizing committee and after that, he and I walked two picket lines together.
Another guy was a leftish libertarian type. It took me weeks and weeks to get him to even come to the strike vote. Over the course of our conversations, he would get up, storm off, yell at me, and once he even threatened to hit me. I never got him to vote yes – he showed up, loudly voted no, but he still went on strike. And, when he did, he wrote on the biggest picket sign he could find: I VOTED NO. I’M STILL ON STRIKE.
That’s solidarity—and that’s what scares the bosses. And it’s an example that what matters is not always winning the argument, but building relationships of solidarity capable of overcoming the fear and hopelessness that prevent people from taking collective action.
The challenge here is to think about how you would get that person in your workplace, the one who lives down the street, or your pro-life, gun-toting red meat Republican brother-in law—in short the least likely candidates for radical collective action—and get that person to join you. What would you say to that person? How would you move that person? Given the enormity of what we are up against, a whole lot of that sort of work is going to have to happen—regardless of any critique of the Democratic Party or the current leadership of the labor movement.
Jay Driskell spent five years organizing for the Graduate Employees and Students Organization. He is currently assistant professor of United States history at Hood College in Frederick, Maryland. His first book, First-Class Citizens: Rights, Respectability and the Making of Modern Black Politics (currently under contract with the University of Virginia Press), traces the development of an autonomous black politics in Atlanta surrounding the fight for black public education in the early twentieth century. He lives in Silver Spring, MD.