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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


Defending and Expanding the Public Sector Benefits Us All

This op-ed appeared in the Burlington Free Press on March 10, 2011

In the past weeks, anti-worker Republicans have bared their teeth. Republican leader Boehner’s budget proposal in Congress, and attempts by Republican governors in Wisconsin and Ohio to roll back the basic human right for public employees to organize, demonstrate clearly that their agenda is not simply one of “fiscal conservatism.” Instead, it is a highly ideological attack on many of our fundamental human rights. Leaving in place the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, Republicans — and many Democrats — are using the deficits created by those tax cuts to not only attack programs for the most vulnerable, but also to attack women’s reproductive health and prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from acting on climate change and the Federal Communications Commission from protecting net neutrality.

Vermont can be proud that many of our elected officials have stood up against this dangerous agenda. Senator Bernie Sanders galvanized people across the nation with his 8 1/2 hour “Filibernie” in December, and our state is poised to be the first to truly solve the healthcare crisis, supported by a strong grassroots movement around the state demanding Healthcare Is a Human Right. However, the state of Vermont is not immune from pressures to punish poor and working people for a fiscal crisis we did not create. As detailed in the “People’s Budget Report” issued by the Vermont Workers’ Center in December, the state budget falls short of meeting our government’s obligation to protect the most vulnerable.

It is always easiest for those in power to pick on the less powerful, or to set them against each other. It is easier to pit local taxpayers against teachers — as the South Burlington school board is doing right now — than it is to face up to the fact that the only just and sustainable way to finance education is through a progressive income tax and push the legislature to act on that. Our legislature found the “courage” last year to raise taxes on cash-strapped arts organizations, yet cannot contemplate raising revenue from those who can well afford to contribute more: those with the highest incomes, who have received tax break after tax break at the federal level.

A strong and vibrant public sector is crucial to democracy, and to strong communities. If everything in our lives is controlled by for-profit corporations, we might have some illusory “freedom,” but we don’t have democracy (literally, “rule by the people”). The public sector is where we express our values as a community; values of caring for each other, social solidarity and human rights. Public sector institutions are our institutions. In those cases when they aren’t working for us, we must find ways to democratize them and allow for fuller community control and participation in them.

People in Wisconsin who care about a better society are making history by organizing and defending the basic human right to organize for fairness and a voice at work. We, as Vermonters, have the opportunity to join with them by organizing for, and winning the basic human right of healthcare for all. Like people in Tunisia and Egypt and throughout the Middle East, by standing up together we can win the future we wish to see, a democracy that is truly of, by and for the people.