I’ve had this sitting around for a while, it’s a piece on workplace organizing and diversity, in three parts. The first two are the most finished but they could still use some work. The last one is just a note. I also notes for a thing on doing targeted organizing based on demographic concerns, workplace organizing as strategy for diversification, I’m not posting that but would be happy to send it to people who email me. Any feedback is super welcome.


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Unfinished pamphlet draft
Workplace organizing, feminism, anti-racism
Who can organize?
Diversity=Power

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1. Workplace organizing, feminism, anti-racism

I’m going to talk about workplace organizing as a tool to oppose
sexism and racism. (I’m going to sometimes just say “organizing” in
the rest of this, but I mean specifically workplace organizing).
Before I get to that, I want to say this clearly first: workplace
organizing is not the answer to sexism and racism – or, if you prefer,
to male dominance and white supremacy. That is, organizing does not
always undermine racism and sexism.

Some organizing may have no effect, at least no visible effect, on
sexism or racism at all. This does not mean this organizing is not
valuable, but we should be clear about what it does and does not
accomplish. [EXAMPLES.]

In some cases, organizing could very well prop up sexism and/or
racism. The same goes for other forms of discrimination. This has
happened in the past. [EXAMPLES – male workers harassing women
coworkers, white workers striking to keep women, hate strikes.]

Not only is organizing not always a feminist and anti-racist activity,
some aspects of sexism and racism are not likely to be solved by
workplace organizing. Sexism and racism don’t just exist on the job or
due to our jobs, so workplace organizing alone is not going to end
sexism or racism. For the foreseeable future, workplace organizing
alone is not going to end sexual assault, domestic violence,
discrimination in housing, police harassment, incarceration, or many
other ills.

If workplace organizing alone is not the answer to sexism and racism,
does this mean that workplace organizing is not useful at all for
challenging sexism and racism? I don’t think so. It seems to me that
just as organizing can sometimes prop up sexism and racism, it can
also sometimes undermine them. That’s what I want to address here:
when is workplace organizing a feminist and an anti-racist practice?

The answer depends on where we’re organizing. Organizing is a feminist
and an anti-racist practice when it means women and people of color
coming together to have more control over their lives and to have more
collective power. If a group of women of color fix some issues they
face, that’s a small victory against sexism and racism, whether it’s
workplace organizing or tenant organizing or organizing the unemployed
or organizing welfare recipients. So, workplace organizing is a
feminist and an anti-racist practice when women and people of color
organize around issue they have on the job.

I know some people have doubts about workplace organizing as a
feminist and anti-racist activity. These doubts may come from the bad
parts of the history of workplace organizing – the hate strikes I
mentioned, problems in organizations that do workplace organizing.
It’s very reasonable to react badly to all of that, but the baby of
organizing should be thrown out with the bath-water of organizing put
to bad use.

Doubts about workplace organizing may also come from a reductive
definition of what we organize around, like so-called “bread and
butter” issues such as wages and benefits. People who push for more
workplace organizing, can sometimes sound like all people care about
is bread, when we all know people want both bread and roses. Some
workplace issues are not economic in the narrow “bread and butter”
sense.

One of my first organizing experiences was with janitors at a
hospital. The janitors were all African Americans or immigrant Latinos
and many of them were women. One of the key people among the janitors
was a women I’ll call Mable. Mable worked full time night shift.
Mable’s main reason for being part of the organizing drive was that
she wanted more control over scheduling. She had repeatedly asked
management to put her on day shift. There were other workers on day
shift who wanted to work nights because the night shift got paid a bit
more.

Mable wanted to work days so she could be at home with her five
children when they were not at school. She was a single mother who
relied a lot on her older two children to help with the younger
children. Mable was particularly concerned because there had been a
lot of shootings and gang activity close to her house. She was afraid
that her thirteen year old son would get mixed up in gang activity or
would get hurt if he was unsupervised five nights a week.

Mable’s demand to work days is not a narrowly “bread and butter”
economic issue. In the short term, Mable was willing to take a small
pay cut in order to work days. Mable’s issue, like all or almost all
workplace issues, boiled down to who had power. Power on the job is
not only about “bread and butter.”

Doubts about organizing may also come from a sense that oppression is
not just a workplace issue, that some pieces of oppression can’t be
fixed on the job. Some of the doubts or hesitation about workplace
organizing may come from a feeling that people who push for more
workplace organizing don’t care about oppression outside of work.
These are important concerns but this doesn’t mean that oppression
can’t be fought in the workplace at all.

I think that workplace organizing is a key piece of opposing sexism
and racism. Like I said before, not all power is about “bread and
butter.” On the other hand, “bread and butter” issues are crucial
parts of sexism and racism. Women and people of color generally make
less money in their jobs. [*****************************FIND STATS ON
WOMEN AND PEOPLE OF COLOR WAGES]

Lower pay results from the history of women and people of color having
less power in our society. Since money is a type of power, women and
people of color having less money also reinforces the trend of women
and people of color having less power in our society. “Bread and
butter” for women and people of color is connected to women and people
of color having power or not having power in society and over their
own lives.

Ultimately, it’s up to all women workers and workers of color to
decide in their own situations what their issues are. That may be
“bread and butter” or an issue more like Mable’s, or both or something
else. The point is that when workplace organizing means women and
people of color having more control over their lives and more power in
society, then workplace organizing is a feminist and an anti-racist
activity.

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2. Who can organize?

I wrote before about workplace organizing as a way to oppose sexism
and racism (not the only way, but one important way which should not
be discounted). I want to talk about something related to this. I’ve
often been in or overheard conversations about organizing where people
start to talk about who can organize whom, or who can organize with
whom. This doesn’t just apply to workplace organizing.

Many times I’ve heard people say things like “white people can’t
organize people of color” and “men can’t organize women.” This is
false. White people can and do organize people of color, and men can
and do organize women. Paid organizers for various unions and other
organizations regularly demonstrate this. In a sense, the growth of
churches demonstrates this. We could also look to the role of white
organizers in the civil rights movement in the United States.

Someone might respond, “sure, but the point is not really that white
people can’t organize people of color and men can’t organize women.
The point is that they shouldn’t, at least not if the goal is to
oppose racism and sexism.” That’s also false. Consider John Brown, the
famous abolitionist. He organized a group of white people and people
of color in a blow against white supremacy. John Brown being white
does not mean that the actions of his group did not undermine racism.

I’ll use medicine as an example to put this another way. A white man
who needs medical care would have an interest in seeing a female
doctor of color. Similarly, a woman of color may well have a genuine
interest in seeing a white male doctor. As a parallel, a woman could
organize a group of male workers. A person of color could organize a
group of white workers. In both cases, there may be difficulties that
arise due to sexist and racist attitudes on the part of the workers.
On the other hand, if the organizer is successful these workers would
recognize why it was in their interests to listen to the organizer.
Likewise, a group of women workers might recognize that they have an
interest in listening to a male organizer. Workers of color might
recognize that they have an interest in listening to a white
organizer.

My point is that we should not assume that a male organizer
interacting with women workers will always and only replicate male
dominance, or that a white organizer interacting with workers of color
will always and only replicate white supremacy. To say otherwise means
that the women and people of color who interact with male and white
organizers are dupes or fools who don’t know their own interests. As
long as the white or male organizer is playing a useful role in women
workers and workers of color coming together to have more control over
their lives, the organizer is doing the right thing.

All of that said, there’s an important element to the view that white
people and men can’t organize people of color and women. I imagine (I
hope!) that the parallel I drew to doctors a moment ago set off some
alarm bells in some people’s heads. If men and white people are
calling the shots, then there’s an aspect of liberation which is not
being accomplished. This does not mean that whatever a woman or a
person of color thinks is right. To say that would be patronizing.
Often the most experienced organizer is likely to have the best sense
of how to proceed. (Often, but not always.) Imagine a white male
organizer who helped a group of women workers of color get fired
because he wanted to listen to everyone’s views and did not push the
workers to organize in the best way he could think of. That is not at
all a useful example of feminist and anti-racist activity. My point
here is that in our organizing we have to prioritize turning workers
into organizers. The organizer’s role is to make him- or herself
unnecessary.

The need for organizers to replace themselves by turning workers into
organizers is a key piece of organizing in a feminist and anti-racist
fashion, not only in terms of the role of men and white people in
relation to women and of people of color, but also among women
organizers and organizers of color. History is full of examples of
people from oppressed groups who rise to a leadership position then
use that position in a way which benefits the leaders more than
everyone else. (This is part of how colonialism works: a local elite
helps the outside power maintain dominance, in exchange for privileges
and benefits.)

A man who organizes women workers in such a way that develops as many
of those workers as possible into organizers is not a problem. The
same goes for a white person who does the same with workers of color.
I’m not saying that there can’t be any problems. Problems may well
arise due to our socialization in a sexist and racist society. My
point is that a man organizing women workers or a white person
organizing workers of color does not always have to be a problem or to
only be a problem.

There is one other important element to this issue of who can or
should organize whom. As I said before, the key point is that the
organizing is about the workers coming together to improve their
lives. This means having more control on the job. It also means having
more control in the organization. They need to be developed as full
participants and leaders within a democratic union. Organizers should
primarily focus on winning fights against the boss and cultivating
workers into becoming organizers. At the same time, organizers need to
cultivate workers into having full ownership of the larger
organization, to the degree that all members should have that.

After the initial fights are won on the job, the workers need to be
oriented and trained into the larger organization so they can
understand and navigate its formal structures and procedures. The
organizer should be deliberate about helping the workers build more
relationships with people around the organization, so the workers can
understand and navigate the informal structures and networks of
relationships which are a key part of the organization. All organizers
should do this with all workers but this is especially important with
women workers and workers of color when they are not already in the
majority within the larger organization.

In my opinion, people with organizing skills and experience have a
moral duty to organize with others to help them improve their lives
collectively. Even more so, experienced and skilled organizers have a
duty to cultivate other organizers and pass on their skills and
experiences so that more organizing and struggle takes place. With
that in mind, the idea that whites should only organize whites or men
should only organize men could boil down to the suggestion that white
organizers and male organizers should keep the skills their organizing
skills and experiences to themselves. That is clearly a bad idea.

The idea that white people and men can’t or shouldn’t organize people
of color and women is false. The anti-racist and feminist values
behind it as well as are values everyone should take seriously and the
suspicions it expresses are healthy ones. These values and suspicions
should make us organize more and make us careful to organize well.

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3. Diversity=Power: Building a Representative Committee [Note]
[I showed this to a comrade of mine, who pointed out that throughout
this I only talk about how workplace organizing fits into the goal of
more diversity. He rightly said that in a lot of situations diversity
is really key to helping build workplace power. I want to write a
section on that but haven’t had time yet]

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