When Diversity Is Power
I've been writing about workplace organizing, arguing that not all workplace organizing is not always a feminist and anti-racist activity but that it can be. So far I've been talking about this from the perspective of feminist and anti-racist values, talking about some things that we as feminists and anti-racists can and should think about with regard to workplace organizing. I have sometimes heard people say basically “if we don’t have a clear anti-racist and feminist agenda, we will not be able to organize!” I don’t think that’s actually true. There are racist and sexist organizations in the world and some of them are flourishing. We don’t hold our values primarily because they help us win campaigns. We’re committed to our feminist and anti-racist values because they are our values, because they’re right. In some cases, these values are in tension with building our organizations – sometimes it might be easier to pander to existing racism and sexism among people, not that we are willing to do that.
All of that said, I want to think about this in another direction. Some of the time, a feminist and anti-racist agenda really is a pressing need in order to win an organizing drive. Even if some people we're working with are not feminists or anti-racists, they still have short term interests that fit with an anti-racist and feminist agenda. This allows us greater opportunities to move that agenda. I’ve talked a bit about this before in relation to my experiences with a multi-racial group of hospital janitors. The janitors moved from being divided along racial and gender lines to having relationships of solidarity across those lines.
Those ties between people are a good thing, as I argued. They were also immediately important in that organizing - they weren't just morally good, if we hadn't prioritized building those relationships the boss would have stomped all over us.
What I mean is, in workplaces with diverse workplaces, we have only two options: find ways to build solidarity across divisions and be stronger, or be divided and weaker. In concrete terms, this means that in workplace organizing we need to have representative committees of workers. Whatever the demographics of the workplace, the committee has to represent that. If the committee doesn’t look like the workplace, the boss will use this.
Bosses tend to be very aware of divisions among workers, and often help maintain those divides. The boss will say – or get spies to say - “the union is just for white people” or some other group. If the organization is not representative – that is, if there’s some element of truth to what the boss says – then we will have a hard time countering this.
The need to build a representative committee can sometimes conflict with two impulses we might have. For one thing, people sometimes feel like white people can’t organize people of color, or men can’t organize women, and so on. I’ve talked about this before in earlier columns. There are important dynamics that we do want to be aware of, but we also have to organize our co-workers. Some of the time people hang back because of ideas about who can organize whom. That’s a problem and can lead to less representative committee. Aside from that, we often have an impulse to trust workers. Of course we should do that, but at the same time we have push them and we can’t just take what they say at face value. As we all know, the working class is divided. People often don’t have strong relationships beyond their social circles. People may not realize this clearly, but once organizing starts many people are hesitant to reach beyond their immediate social circles. We have to push people to do this, and we have to be systematic about it. Otherwise, the committee risks looking like (or worse, actually being) a clique.
The more diverse a workplace is, the more pressing it is that we build organizations that bridge the various groups in that workplace. In these instances, feminist and anti-racist values are often build directly into workplace organizing. We have to overcome divisions or the organizing is doomed.