Viewpoint: Unions Are Class Organizations, and Should Act Like It

This was originally published in Labor Notes, as part of a debate on how unions should deal with “free riders.”

In recent Labor Notes blog posts, Chris Brooks and Steve Downs have debated whether public sector unions faced with a “right-to-work” or open-shop situation should seek statewide legislation that would end mandatory exclusive representation.

An open shop means workers are not obligated to make payments to the union. Exclusive representation means that for a given bargaining unit, only one union at a time can be officially recognized—and this union is obliged to represent all the workers, even those who don’t pay.

Brooks describes how right-to-work Tennessee’s elimination of exclusive representation in its collective-bargaining law for educators led to competition from pro-corporate “associations” of educators.

Downs counters that Brooks is overgeneralizing from his experience, and that public sector unions in highly unionized states like New York and New Jersey who lose the ability to collect “fair-share” payments from all workers should “make quitters pay” by refusing to represent them in grievances or look out for their interests in collective bargaining.

My union, United Electrical Workers (UE), covers workplaces that have recently become open-shop and others that have always been open-shop. Our experiences suggest that the question of giving up exclusive representation is a distraction.

Instead, it’s in the best interests of union members to build maximum unity against the boss, in order to extract the best possible conditions for all workers—regardless of whether they are union members or not. Continue reading

Forced Labor

What kind of labor movement do we need in the era of Trump?

These should be exciting, if terrifying, times to be part of the labor movement. Following the actions at airports last weekend — a crucial part of which was a one-hour strike against pickups at JFK called by the New York Taxi Workers Alliance — novelist Francine Prose called for a general strike in the Guardian. Calls for a “#NationalStrike” on February 17th have been circulating on Twitter and other social media. And labor lawyers Moshe Marvit and Leo Gertner published a piece in the Washington Post, “Where’s the Best Place to Resist Trump? At Work,” whose pullquote is “From solidarity strikes to slowdowns and sit-ins, workplace revolt is a key strategy in opposing the new administration.”

Meanwhile, the institutional labor movement is under existential threat. National Right to Work legislation was introduced into Congress this week, and with Republican majorities in both houses and You-Know-Who as president, it is hard to imagine it not passing. In the state where I got my start in the labor movement, Iowa, new Republican majorities are planning to make it “the next Wisconsin” by gutting or rescinding entirely the state’s collective bargaining law for public-sector employees.

Continue reading

Can we stop complaining about “check your privilege” already?

This morning I saw this tweet from Jacobin magazine:

which was promoting this article, Let Them Eat Privilege: Focusing on privilege diverts attention away from the real villains.

The article itself is, actually, not as bad as its title would imply – it is primarily a take-down of this stupid article, which essentially tells people that if you have any kind of middle-class status (college degree, etc.), you shouldn’t complain about the 1%. In fact, the Jacobin article is not bad at all – I was worried it would be yet another white male leftist explicitly complaining about how being told to “check your privilege” (by women and people of color and queer folks and people with disabilities and so forth) is destructive to focusing on “the real villains,” building a united class movement, etc., etc.

This critique is, of course, not limited exclusively to white dudes – last year at Left Forum I got to hear Vivek Chibber and Arun Gupta deliver a much more searing denunciation of how destructive “privilege talk” is to the Left.

There is a moral rebuttal to this line of reasoning: privilege is real, and I as a straight, college-educated white dude, while far from being a member of the 1%, just have a much easier life than my sisters and brothers who, well, are not straight college-educated white dudes.  And that is wrong.

But there is also a practical rebuttal to this: suppressing talk about privilege does not, in fact, help us build a united class movement — quite the opposite.  I’ve spent most of my adult life in the trade union movement — the movement that, however battered and backward, offers the best hope for actually changing the imbalance of power between the 1% and the 99%. We have to value solidarity of all workers: it’s not just an abstract political commitment, it’s necessary to organize new workplaces, to win decent contracts and grievances and strikes and political struggles.  But we recognize that building that solidarity requires recognizing, and dealing with, ways in which some of us are, in fact, treated better by the boss, by the state, by each other, because of the privilege of real or perceived whiteness, of maleness, of being “able-bodied,” of being or being perceived to be heterosexual.

Now, we don’t use the term “check your privilege” exactly.  But my union, the UE, devotes a significant chunk of its national conventions — as well as a lot of the educational work done in the locals — to addressing issues of racism and sexism, among a membership that is still primarily white and more-than-majority male.  Because we have learned from decades of experience that if you don’t address the very real differences in power between different groups of workers based on race, gender, etc., then you cannot in fact build the kind of unity that is necessary to win real, concrete class victories.

It is not an accident that some of the most vibrant parts of the broader labor movement right now — the National Domestic Workers Alliance*, the National Day Labor Organizing Network and the Fight for 15 movement among fast food workers — are organizing low-wage workers of color (in the case of NDWA, women of color who are primarily immigrants).  To varying degrees, these organizations operate from an analysis that understands race and gender as deeply intertwined with class.

And, let’s not forget the very real privileges that college-educated middle-class workers have – the ones enumerated in the stupid article.  It doesn’t mean we don’t struggle — but if we are insensitive to the way that our relative privilege (and our sometimes arrogant cultural assumptions) come across to our working-class sisters and brothers, then we won’t be able to build the deep unity that will allow us to not just “focus on” the real villains, but actually take away their power.

*Full disclosure: I work for NDWA

April 15: Presenting at “School Lunch”

Next Wednesday, April 15, I’ll be giving a talk on “Good, Old Fashioned Class Struggle for the 21st Century” at Radio Bean’s “School Lunch” series.

What does class struggle mean in the 21st century? Is it even relevant to the “new economy” of AirBnB, Uber, Kickstarter and startups? Will there even be a labor movement in the future, and what will it look like? What kind of stake do working people have in fights over state and city budgets? We’ll look at these questions as tens of thousands of fast food workers strike on April 15.

Wednesday, April 15, Noon
Radio Bean Coffeehouse
8 North Winooski Avenue, Burlington VT

Back to the Cooperative Commonwealth?

I think a lot about the problems of building a labor movement for the 21st century.  And, as a long-time labor activist who now finds himself a member of a worker-owned cooperative (I work at Webskillet Cooperative, which is both a worker coop and a UE union shop), I struggle with reconciling the militant traditions that have shaped my outlook with the sometimes overly optimistic approach of the cooperative movement.

On Saturday I drove down to Glens Falls, New York, for an international meeting of union cooperative workers.  The newly-formed network of cooperative workers inside UE, which includes four worker coops and the organized workers at two food coops, was hosting a coop delegation from Mexico’s Frente Auténtico del Trabajo (FAT).

FAT coop delegation at UE Regional Council Meeting

The UE and FAT have a long and deep relationship.  Initially formed during the fight against NAFTA, when the “official,” government-controlled trade unions in Mexico supported the free trade agreement, the UE-FAT Strategic Organizing Alliance has included joint organizing projects targeting the same multinational employers, support for each others’ organizing — including the FAT organizing Mexican unions to file a complaint against the US for denying collective bargaining rights to public sector workers in North Carolina, and many, many exchanges of rank and file workers.

The UE’s semi-official slogan is “The Members Run This Union,” reflecting both a commitment to democracy and a belief that working-class people have the capacity to run their own unions.  The FAT’s slogan, “¡Por la autogestión de la clase trabajadora!” doesn’t translate smoothly into English, but it means, roughly, “for the self-management of the working class” — reflecting a belief that working-class people have the capacity to run everything about their lives.

The FAT, unlike UE, is not solely a union (the name literally means “authentic workers’ front”).  While the union sector is the largest, they have long had a cooperative sector.  In large part, this stems from the fact that Mexican labor law, in some cases when an employer cannot pay the settlements they owe to the workers, allows workers to take over buildings and equipment and either sell them or run them cooperatively.  However, it also reflects the FAT’s commitment to autogestión.

The FAT delegation we met with on Saturday included the director of the FAT’s cooperative sector, a leader from a state workers’ union which is forming coops to help its members build their own green housing, the general accountant of a credit union which was formed by the FAT in the wake of a strike 26 years ago, and a member of Bicicooperativa Urbana, a coop of young bicyclists in Mexico City who are sort of an incubator for bicycle-based businesses in the city, including a parcel delivery service, bicycle repair and bicycle parking lots.  This was the second UE-FAT exchange to focus on the cooperative sector, following a visit by UE coop members to Mexico in November of last year.

The cooperative movement and the labor movement, of course, emerge from a similar history of working-class organization.  The modern coooperative movement generally traces its history to the Rochdale Pioneers, a group of weavers, Owenite socialists and other workers who started a cooperative grocery in 1844, in an area of England with a rich history of working-class agitation.  Not unlike the FAT credit union, the Rochdale pioneers started their cooperative after an unsuccessful weavers’ strike.

In fact, the principles of cooperation, as an alternative vision to capitalism, animated the vision of the first large-scale labor movement in the US, the Knights of Labor.  The Knights, along with many other radicals in the late nineteenth century, expressed their goal of an exploitation-free society as “The Cooperative Commonwealth.”  The fact that they used this term rather than being explicitly socialist, as most European labor movements were, combined with the fact that some leader of the Knights expressed distaste for strikes (stating that workers should instead form cooperatives), has not done wonders for their reputation among labor historians, who tend to be a rather left-wing and pro-strike bunch.

I don’t think cooperatives are the answer to everything (my UE brothers and sisters currently fighting a GE plant closure in Ft. Edward, NY are not going to be able to take over and run that capacitor plant as a worker coop — but I think they do have a shot at convincing GE to keep the plant open).  Nonetheless, I think the idea of the cooperative commonwealth, and of various forms of cooperative organization of social life, bears reexamining in a couple of ways:

1. I think we need more historical investigation of the Knights’ practical experience with cooperatives.  Did they actually try to form cooperatives, and if so what kinds (worker, consumer, producer)?  What challenges did they face, and how did they try to overcome them?  What was the organizational role of cooperatives within the Knights’ assemblies (their form of local organization), and what relationship (if any) did they have to groups of workers who engaged in more traditional collective bargaining?

2. The labor movement, and the left more generally, has been on the defensive about the public sector.  Partly this reflects ruling class strength, partly this reflects strategic weaknesses and mistakes on our part, but partly this also reflects the reality that for many people (especially, though not exclusively, poor and working-class people), dealing with the actually-existing public sector can be extremely frustrating.  Racist teachers, unhelpful bureaucrats and condescending social-service providers are not the rule, but they are not uncommon either.  While I think we absolutely need to close ranks to defend the public sector, and public-sector workers, we also need to think more creatively about ways to make the delivery of social goods more participatory and accountable to the people who are being served.

3. Finally, I think most people who care about such things realize that our currently-existing institutional labor movement (i.e., the trade unions) are at the very least not sufficient to defend the working class from the assaults of capital, let alone improve the condition of the working class and the people as a whole.  In order to “join the labor movement” in America right now, a group of workers needs to win legal collective bargaining rights.  This involves, at a minimum, overcoming a significant set of legal hurdles.  In almost all cases, the boss will hire professional union busters, a whole industry of people who are highly skilled at “persuading” vulnerable workers.  And there is a large and increasing sector of the working class who don’t even have access to these minimal legal avenues, because they are prohibited by state law, classified as independent contractors, working off the books or unemployed.

Yet there are no obvious answers to this problem.  “Alt-labor” groups are almost exclusively dependent on foundation funding.  “Non-majority” or “pre-majority” unions, while no doubt a crucial strategy, are extremely difficult to build and sustain, and so far few of them have either won majority status or become financially self-sustaining.  And it is hard to imagine how “associate membership” programs like Working America — where the “members” share little more than a general support for working-class political issues and the experience of being door-knocked — can do much more than build mailing lists and recruit a small handful of activists.

The FAT structure, bringing worker coops and other forms of coops into a democratic structure with unions, seems to offer a useful model to explore (as I understand it, in the FAT the coops affiliate with the FAT as coops — it’s not like the more transactional United Steelworkers-Mondragon agreement, where workers at coops are simply enrolled as members in the union).  It allows a way for working-class people who cannot otherwise “join” the labor movement to join together with others in a collective effort to improve their own material conditions.

Coops, like unions, at their best require their members to be accountable to each other, and have a direct, positive influence on their members’ day-to-day lives.  That is what creates the kind of loyalty, to each other and to the institution, that is necessary for sustained struggle.  And in this moment, the labor movement, the working class, and everyone who cares about social justice is clearly in for a sustained struggle.

This blog was also posted at the Labor Online blog.

Why Our Worker Co-op Is a Union Shop: Democracy

Democracy. A little over ten years ago, I had come to New York City with a van-full of my fellow union members, to join tens or hundreds of thousands of people who had come to protest the impending war against Iraq. A young white man on a subway car, berating us, explained how democracy works: “People voted for Bush, now he gets to do what he wants. That’s democracy.”

I think most of us like to think we have a deeper understanding of “democracy” than this young man did. But the reality is that, in our governments and, truth be told, in most of the organizations we’re part of, we accept that logic. As long as we’re allowed to protest the decisions of those we elect, we don’t really think that deeply about the process of democratic decision-making, about making decisions together.

This may be, in part, because the organizations where most of us spend most of our time and energy are, like it or not, the places where we work. Our workplaces may be better or worse, but very few of them are democratic. Worker coops, of course, are one of the few exceptions – in a worker co-op everyone who works for the enterprise gets to have an equal say in decisions.

Last weekend I attended the Owning the New Economy Summit at the University of Vermont. At the “Envisioning the Cooperative Economy” workshop in the morning, Keith Taylor, Director of the Coop Research Project, reminded us about the importance of learning, and practicing, democracy, pointing out that the highly centralized government and corporate structures that govern most of our lives neither teach nor encourage democratic practices.

Which got me thinking — where did I learn democracy? And the reality is that I didn’t learn it from school, I didn’t learn it from voting, and unfortunately, I didn’t learn it from the food and financial co-ops (credit unions) that I’ve been a part of. I learned it from my union.

To be fair, I’ve been a member of one of the most democratic unions in America, UE, for most of my adult life. The experiences of other union members are almost certainly different than mine. But here are some of the lessons that I’ve learned from UE democracy, lessons that have helped Webskillet thrive, and lessons that all institutions that strive to be democratic – and most co-ops – could learn from:

1. Be Inclusive. Actively. If you’re a union and the only way you engage your members is to encourage them to come for meetings or run for the board (and then complain about them when they don’t), or if you don’t pay attention to how certain demographics within your membership are alienated from the union, you’re going to be in a pretty weak position going up against the boss. Democracy isn’t just offering people the opportunity to participate – it’s actively encouraging (and organizing) them to participate, and asking (honestly) why they aren’t, and being willing to listen and change.

2. Own the Big Picture. I’ve been in a lot of meetings where the “ground rules” — either explicitly or implicitly — prevent us from talking about the broader social problems that underlie the specific issues we’re trying to address. I’ve never experienced this in the UE — and, in fact, a willingness to talk about broader issues (even if we can’t solve them immediately) has often helped us come to a better, and stronger, consensus. A contentious discussion of gay marriage at a UE regional meeting in 2004 was aided immeasurably by our collective willingness to address deeper philosophical questions about whether the government should be in the business of regulating private relationships at all.

3. Democratic culture and practice is at least as important as democratic rules. UE, formally, uses Robert’s Rules of Order for all of our meetings. But 70-plus years of collective experience trying to make democratic decisions — and having to live with the consequences when decisions made through formally democratic processes divide the membership — have created a culture in UE that encourages collective and consensus-seeking leadership, far more so than in many organizations that formally use consensus processes, but often develop invisible (and therefore unaccountable) hierarchies.

4. Democracy is hard. And that’s ok. Democracy is a lot of work. It takes time, it takes intellectual and emotional energy, and sometimes we get it wrong. Sometimes we’re on the losing side. Sometimes — even worse — we’re on the winning side, and later realize that we were wrong. But the beautiful thing about (truly) democratic institutions is that nothing’s written in stone, that we get the opportunity to go back and fix it. Together.

Practicing Scales

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.

* * *

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.

Care/Work

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.

Dollars & Sense Article: “The Vermont Workers’ Center Leads Breakthrough on Healthcare”

This was published in Dollars and Sense‘s 2011 Labor Day issue (print only).  I’m only now getting around to posting it here.  The Vermont Migrant Farmworker Solidarity Project has sinced changed their name to Migrant Justice/Justicia Migrante.

On Sunday, May 1st, thousands of Vermonters gathered in the state capital of Montpelier under the banner of the Healthcare Is a Human Right (HCHR) Campaign. This was the third year in a row the Vermont Workers’ Center (VWC), which coordinates the HCHR campaign, had organized a mass rally for healthcare on this traditional workers’ holiday, but this year was especially significant in two ways. The first was that after years of grassroots organizing by the HCHR campaign and others, the state legislature was on the verge of passing a bill, supported by the governor, that would commit the state to a universal, single-payer healthcare system by 2017. The second, however, was more troubling. The week before this May Day rally, the state senate had added an amendment to the healthcare bill that would have specifically excluded undocumented people from coverage – an amendment that, according to the governor’s office, had “zero percent” chance of being removed from the final bill.

This challenge gave this year’s May Day rally more of the flavor of the other major May Day rallies the country has seen in recent years, with signs supporting immigrants’ rights seen throughout the crowd. Working together with the Vermont Migrant Farmworker Solidarity Project, the VWC mobilized Vermonters to demand that universal means everyone, that Healthcare Is a Human Right means that we all have a right to healthcare by virture of being human, regardless of immigration status or any other category.

One of the featured speakers, a farmworker, spoke of the struggles both he and the farmer who employs him have had with the healthcare system. He explained that three years ago, after the barn roof caved in, “We worked in the damp cold all winter and that’s when I got this cough.” He finally went to the hospital and has since paid over $1000 in monthly installments out of his meager wages. But he does not blame his employer. “The farmer pays us what he can. I know he can’t pay more. His wife is paralyzed. His son is incapacitated. His bills keep piling up. I couldn’t do what he does.”

While some healthcare advocacy organizations had been reluctant to fight the amendment, urging a “pragmatic” approach in order to make sure the overall healthcare bill passed, the VWC and VTMFSP held firm and continued to mobilize grassroots pressure. By the time the bill passed out of conference committee on May 2nd, the amendment had been removed.

The Workers’ Center Movement

The Vermont Workers’ Center and the Vermont Migrant Farmworker Solidarity Project are both part of a wave of new worker-based grassroots organizations which have emerged around the country in the past two decades, often referred to as the “workers’ center” movement. Mostly, though not entirely, based in working-class communities of color and/or sectors of the economy with little or no union representation, these organizations have emerged in part because the traditional “workers’ movement” – the trade unions – has been either unable or unwilling to organize these workers, or to be a vehicle for their political aspirations.

The political and organizational vacuum that workers’ centers have emerged to fill has its roots in the economic changes of the last several decades, in the legal framework of collective bargaining in the United States, and in the political and organizational conservatism of the US trade union movement.

The economic agenda of the corporate elite since the 1970s, commonly referred to as “neoliberalism,” has fundamentally restructured the workplace. Production has been shifted from the vertically-integrated national corporations of the mid-twentieth century to flexible, global supply chains, while services have been increasingly privatized. The large factories and government workplaces that were bastions of union strength have been replaced with myriads of sub-contractors and private service agencies, and this period has also seen a tremendous growth in casual or precarious work, part-time jobs, low-wage “independent contractors,” day labor and other forms of temporary work.

These changes have posed organizing challenges for all of the world’s labor movements, but the legal framework for collective bargaining in the United States, which requires unions to win representation elections on a shop-by-shop basis, exacerbates those challenges even further. Furthermore, certain categories of workers – domestic workers, taxi drivers or port drivers classified as “independent contrators,” public-sector workers in many Southern states, and others – are excluded from any collective bargaining rights at all.

Finally, the organizational and political conservatism of US trade unions has made it difficult for the labor movement to rise to these challenges. Decades of reliance on the government labor boards rather than direct worker action has left many unions unable to even conceive of workers in these new and growing areas of the economy as “organizable.” Unions that have brought in workers as dues-paying members have often then buried them in bureaucratic local unions which do little to engage their new members as leaders. And the hostility towards radicalism that has been endemic in the labor movement since the anti-communist purges of the 1950s has left few unions with a political vision which could appeal to this new and growing sector of the working class, whose issues are not merely the bread and butter of wages and benefits on the job, but also racial and gender justice; social rights to healthcare, education, and transportation; and immigrants’ rights to live and work in dignity and without fear.

Locked out of or uninterested in joining the formal “labor movement,” workers have created their own organizations, and in recent years these organizations have formed or joined a variety of networks, including the National Day Labor Organizing Network, Jobs with Justice, Right to the City, the Pushback Network, Grassroots Global Justice, the National Domestic Workers Alliance and the Excluded Workers Congress. These networks have begun to have a serious organizational impact on progressive movements in the United States, and have won significant victories. GGJ was crucial in organizing the first and second US Social Forums. The NDWA recently helped secure passage of a convention on domestic work at the International Labor Organization. The Excluded Workers Congress, who slogan is “Building a Labor Movement for the 21st Century,” has begun to redefine what the “labor movement” is.

The Vermont Workers’ Center

The Vermont Workers’ Center was founded in 1998 by a group of young, low-wage workers, who envisioned an organization that would fight for “an economically just and democratic Vermont in which all residents have living wages, decent health care, childcare, housing and transportation.” Early campaigns for livable wages and against privatization brought the group into contact with rank and file trade unionists, and in 2000 the group affiliated with the national labor-community coalition Jobs with Justice.

The core work of the VWC in its early years centered around building community support for workers who were engaged in organizing and contract struggles. The VWC articulated the issues that workers were fighting for, such as wages, preserving healthcare benefits, and fighting plant shutdowns, as part of a broader political agenda for livable wages, universal healthcare, or global justice. In doing this, the VWC was able to move other members of the broad working class into taking action in solidarity with particular workers’ struggles. However, even with many union organizing victories in the early part of the new century – many of them into progressive, democratic unions and some of them in large workplaces – leaders of the VWC realized that union organizing alone was not going to build the kind of working-class power needed to realize an “economically just and democratic Vermont.”

The VWC began experimenting with other approaches to organizing. In 2003, the VWC formed a partnership with the United Electrical Workers union (UE) in a campaign to organize all of the retail workers in the state capital of Montpelier. In the fall of 2005, the VWC helped organize a campaign with a group of parents in Burlington, the largest city in the state, when the school district tried to shut down the elementary school in their working-class neighborhood. And the VWC built relationships with other workers’ centers and independent working-class organizations around the country, joining Grassroots Global Justice in 2005 and bringing a delegation to the first US Social Forum in 2007.

In 2008 the VWC launched the Healthcare Is a Human Right Campaign. This campaign was chosen for several reasons:

  • The broken healthcare system was an issue in all of the VWC’s work. It was difficult if not impossible for workers to achieve livable wages when the cost of healthcare kept rising. Unionized workers were increasingly being forced to go on strike to defend their benefits, and non-unionized workers were afraid to organize for fear of being fired and losing their health coverage. Healthcare costs were squeezing public sector budgets, prompting public employers to cut services for the public and demand givebacks from workers.
  • It would be a campaign that could truly engage all Vermonters. Most of the VWC’s activity had been concentrated in the parts of the state with greatest union density: Burlington and Central Vermont. A statewide healthcare campaign would require becoming a truly statewide organization. Furthermore, the immediacy of healthcare as an issue would make the campaign much more accessible than union solidarity campaigns, which often require would-be supporters to master unfamiliar acronyms and jargon.
  • Most importantly, it would allow the VWC, and the state’s labor and progressive movements in general, to go on the offensive, after nearly a decade of fighting mostly defensive battles. It would be a campaign in which the VWC could put forward its vision of an economically just and democratic Vermont, not just as a mission statement, but as a goal that could be won, at least in part.

Health Care as a Working-Class Issue

The VWC sees healthcare as a crucial arena for working-class organizing. Much as workers around the country have felt and acted on the need to build worker organizations independent of the AFL-CIO, the VWC leadership believes that the working class needs organizations independent of political parties. “We need to build a powerful people’s movement around the basic moral values our communities share: values about taking care for one another and having everyone be able to lead a dignified life,” says VWC Director James Haslam.

The economic well-being of almost all parts of the broad working class – from the unemployed and disabled through to “middle-class” workers such as teachers and nurses – is deeply tied to the healthcare system. Healthcare costs eat up wages at the bargaining table. Rising healthcare costs are also drive up expenses in public sector budgets; this is then used to justify austerity measures which hit low-income communities the hardest. The employer-based system of healthcare ties workers who do have coverage to their jobs, giving employers more control and helping them to squeeze workers for higher productivity. The entire working class has an economic stake in universal healthcare.

The current healthcare system also divides the working class into separate groups, who perceive themselves as having different interests: “middle class” workers who still have coverage, those who have little or no coverage, and those who rely on Medicare and Medicaid. Striking teachers in Vermont, fighting to preserve their health coverage, face resentment, instead of class solidarity, from other sectors of the working class who do not have coverage. Conversely, the struggle for universal healthcare has great potential for uniting people across boundaries not only of coverage, but of race, gender, sexual orientation, and immigration status. As VWC leader Mary Gerish puts it, “The thing that’s so great about the human rights context is that it unifies everyone.”

Finally, healthcare is an ideal terrain to take on the ruling class ideologies that permeate our society. Healthcare is an issue that is deeply felt. It is, after all, an issue about our very bodies, and those of the ones we love and care about. Most people have an intense commitment to taking care of their families, and of their communities. In healthcare especially, that commitment is in contradiction with the ideologies of individualism, consumerism and market fundamentalism which are widely accepted, on a surface level, throughout US society. When a healthcare campaign stays grounded in human experience rather than being drawn into the dry realm of cost-benefit analyses, there is an opportunity to transform the way people think about the world.

A New Healthcare Law

On May 26th, Vermont’s governor signed the new universal healthcare bill into law. It had taken years of struggle, during which the Vermont Workers’ Center engaged tens of thousands of Vermonters through surveys, petitions, postcard campaigns, public hearings and mass rallies. Through human rights hearings, “people’s forums” and innovative video projects, the VWC had kept the experiences of regular people with the healthcare system at the front and center of the debate for three years. The VWC had grown from a small organization with a single staff person to a true statewide network, with organizing committees in every county, active volunteer committees for media, education and policy, and most importantly dozens of grassroots leaders with a sophisticated understanding of how political power works.

There are still many challenges ahead. The bill passed this year leaves much to future legislators to decide, including both the scope of coverage and the funding mechanism for the new healthcare system. But the Vermont Workers’ Center and its allies will face those challenges with the crucial understanding that politics is not about policy, it is about power, and that the economics of healthcare, like all economics, is fundmentally not about dollars and cents, but about people and their experiences.

Strength of the Storm

Strength of the Storm,” a new film by Vermont filmmaker Rob Koier, tells the story of a group of mobile home residents who, after losing their homes to flooding in the wake of Tropical Storm Irene, discovered both the power and transformative nature of grassroots organizing. The film shows the human costs of the storm, the injustices faced by the most vulnerable Vermonters during its aftermath, and mobile home residents’ struggles to make their voices heard. Subtitled “A film about realizing that we are in this together,” it weaves together stories of economic inequality, climate disruption, personal transformation and collective action into an inspiring vision of the people most affected by injustice building social movements to demand their human rights.

At the end of August 2011, the eastern US braced for the arrival of Hurricane Irene. In most places, the damage directly from the storm was less than expected, and Irene had in fact been downgraded from a hurricane to a tropical storm by the time it hit Vermont. Nonetheless, the sudden dumping of huge amounts of water into narrow mountain valleys created widespread and devastating flooding throughout the state, washing out roads, damaging or destroying homes, and destroying or rendering unsalable many farmers’ crops.

Hardest hit, however, were residents of mobile home parks, many of which are built in flood plains where regulations prohibit the development of permanent housing. Mobile homes are one of the few affordable housing options in Vermont, the most rural state in the country, and most residents survive on part-time or temporary work, Social Security and/or disability. After the storm many found themselves not only without a home, but with a huge liability: having to pay thousands of dollars for the destruction and removal of their now uninhabitable mobile homes.

Like most Vermonters, members of the Vermont Workers’ Center, a grassroots workers-rights and economic-justice organization, had thrown themselves into the relief effort after Irene. When VWC members doing volunteer relief work at the Weston Mobile Home Park began to hear some of the residents’ stories, and their frustration with local government, they offered assistance in organizing. The VWC, having won the country’s first universal healthcare legislation in May using a human rights framework, had recently launched “Put People First,” a campaign to demand that the government meet all of its human rights obligations – including the human rights to safe housing and dignified work.

The mobile home residents built their own organization, Mobile Home Residents for Fairness and Equality, reached out to mobile home residents throughout the state, went to their local selectboard, circulated petitions and held press conferences and forums. Within two months, they had won a significant victory — the state announced that it would remove damaged homes from the parks at no cost to the former residents.

The story could easily have stopped there, but having tasted the power and dignity that come from organizing, the mobile home residents decided to join broader efforts to win dignity, respect and justice for working-class and low-income poople. The film shows mobile home residents confronting the social assumptions that people who live in mobile homes are “trailer trash,” and lets them tell their stories of personal transformation, from individuals who are resigned to injustice to a community that is hungry for justice.

Mobile Home Residents for Fairness and Equality decided to join the Vermont Workers’ Center’s “Put People First” campaign. The film shows mobile home residents going door to door in working class neighborhoods conducting a human rights survey to ask people about their unmet needs in the wake of Irene and the economic crisis. They participated in “Occupy” solidarity actions at the state capital. They traveled to Baltimore for a “Fair Development” conference hosted by United Workers, where they share stories and strategies with working-class African Americans and Latinos. And over a dozen of them attended the Human Rights Day conference organized by the Vermont Workers’ Center on December 10, where the film was first shown, and where former mobile home resident Sandy Gaffney declared to the People’s Movement Assembly panel, “We are not alone anymore, and we can work together to get everyone’s needs met in Vermont and in this country.”

This film is important in the current political moment, when the world is in the midst of interrelated economic and environmental crises, and when the political allegiance of lots of people — including rural working-class whites — is up for grabs. It shows how organizing with a bold, clear vision that appeals to people’s values — especially the values of communities taking care of each other — can win concrete gains, transform individuals, and contribute towards building the kind of broad progressive movement that we need in order to transform our country and our world.

“Strength of the Storm” will have its national premier on Friday, December 16th at the New School in New York City, 66 West 12th Street (near 6th Avenue) Room #A-404, from 6-8pm