Friday, November 5, 2010

Organizing to Break Down Divisions and Build Up Leaders

Organizing to Break Down Divisions and Build Up Leaders

I've been discussing workplace organizing in relationship to feminism and
anti-racism, laying out some ways that we can see workplace organizing as a feminist and anti-racist activity.

One of my first organizing experiences was with a group of janitors at a hospital. This was a diverse group of workers, and they were divided every which way. The black janitors didn't like or trust the Latino janitors, they often had racist views about them and many the Latinos had the same about the blacks. Many of the black janitors also had bad ideas about immigration. They also all thought the Latinos were too scared to organize. Here too the Latinos had the same views about the black janitors. The men tended to be sexist and they all thought the women were too scared to stand up.

Ultimately we built a strong committee of janitors who became a leading force in the hospital organizing, we broke down the divisions between racial groups. The janitors became the most militant unit in the hospital, driving out abusive supervisors, gathering information on other units, and beginning to talk to other low-waged hospital workers (like the cafeteria workers, the transporter,s and the CNAs) who they knew because the janitors worked all over the hospital and so had contact across hospital floors and job classes. I don't know that we eliminated racist views, I can't say either way. It's not like everyone became best friends but we definitely eroded them enough that people worked together and started to build relationships of solidarity. When people fight alongside each other, they often develop bonds of trust and respect. When workers organize beyond divisions in the working class, those divisions are weakened.

From there we had to deal with how to help the janitor unit work with the more highly paid and whiter units - the nurses are the key to hospitals and to hospital organizing. That also meant getting the nurses to treat the janitors with more respect and set aside some baggage. None of this was easy but I think we were successful in easing those divisions among the workers. I think this offers examples of another way we can see workplace organizing as a feminist and anti-racist activity.

We also helped build up some women and people of color into serious, capable leaders who men and white people took seriously (as in, the white workers were led by them). Leadership development is another way that workplace organizing can be very powerful as a feminist and anti-racist activity, in two wagys. First, women and people of color who become skilled leaders and organizers have the potential to organize to further put sexism and racism away, so activating people like this has important possibilities. Second, building up women and people of color as leaders in multi-racial and mixed gender environments is good for making more feminist men and anti-racist white people. It's good for white people and men to have people of color and women as their leaders. I mean their real leaders, leadership in a social sense, people who are respected and capable who set the agenda. I can say for myself, at a young age I was part of a Take Back The Night group for several years, led by some smart, serious, capable women. Having women leaders and mentors at a young age really forced me to deal with some major baggage. Those women's skillled leadership made me a more capable radical, a feminist, and a better person.

As I argued before, workplace organizing is a feminist and anti-racist activity when women and people of color organize at work against the power structures they face. Two other ways organizing can be a feminist and anti-racist activity is by breaking down gender and racial divisions among workers and through leadership development. Developing and mentoring women and people of colors as leaders and organizers creates a larger pool of people to organize. Having women and people of color as leaders also helps men and white people to unlearn baggage from our sexist and racist society.

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