Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Who can organize?

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 organizing waged workplaces. (Just so we’re clear, I don’t think all workplaces are waged, but I use “workplace” as a shorthand for “waged workplace.)

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 and his compatriots 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. (On this point, let me recommend the column “Replace Yourself” by J. Pierce, which appeared in the Workers Power column of the Industrial Worker newspaper.)

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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