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(en) US, The Agitator Index* - Feminism & Resistance to White Supremacy in Worker Organizing: Reflections from the IWW Centenary By Tamara

Date Wed, 18 Jan 2006 14:03:35 +0200

In June, I had the opportunity to attend the IWW Centenary in
Chicago, two days of panels and lectures. About 200 people
attended, and the first day was spent in lectures and panels
discussing theory and history of working class issues and organizing;
the second day was spent hearing about current reports of on-the-ground
organizing work. I went primarily interested in questions of feminist
praxis (theory and practice) and analysis of and resistance to white
supremacy in workplace organizing. Here, I’ve included my initial
questions and reflections that emerged from the experience.
What is the working class, or what are the ‘working classes’?

This question has long been stated as a question to grapple with.
Specifically this came up in two manners. The first, in a recorded
presentation by Mumia Abu-Jamal, as he spoke of the largest
growing sector of the economy, that of service workers. The SEIU is
now the largest union. Service workers typically do work that has
been traditionally women, traditionally unwaged. Though now some
of this work is being done by men (often immigrant men and men of
color) it has still created a ‘sub-class’ of workers. So not
only is the working class divided by race, but by gender and ideas of
‘feminized’ work as well. This has been called the
‘housewiferization’ of labor.

The second time this question came up was the following week
during an organizing meeting. During the meeting, one person was
talking about organizing opportunities on a particular job-site. After
careful discussion of his three co-workers (male) he suddenly
remembered he had forgotten to include a dispatcher who worked
separately in an office by herself. To explain the omission, he stated
‘well, she’s not really working-class. Her background is
working in call-centers and offices.’ He was challenged by
another worker saying ‘call center workers are working
class’ to which he replied ‘yeah, but you all know what I
mean. She talks differently; she’s just different than us guys here
on the floor.’

More thoughts about this...
In a changing economy, with a rapidly growing service sector
creating a ‘subclass’ of workers, and the growth of a class of
dead-end clerical jobs (previously considered ‘white collar’
clerks, and therefore not really working class), what does this mean
for strategies of worker organizing that have previously defined
‘working class’ as point-of-production industrial workers?

In addition, we have a class of very low-paid immigrant laborers with
or without legal documentation (another subclass of workers
working even minimum rights by law by so-called ‘legal’
workers) working in a number of industries from feminized service
work (housekeepers) to agricultural work (food pickers) to food
production and factory work. This class of workers is most
vulnerable to police, INS, border cops, and at times can be the most
militant sector of workers, having the least to gain by the current
economic system and often emerging from cultural and political
traditions with a history of struggle.

It was asked at the conference, if strategies have previously been
focused on dealing a blow to capital by stopping production, focused
then on point-of-production workers and those workers transporting
goods; how then do we make sense of the growth of these other
sectors of low-wage, often women and immigrant workers? How
does our strategy change to incorporate large numbers of workers
excluded from point-of-production work? Also, how does a strategy
originating in and focusing on workers in urban centers relate to
workers in rural areas, where food is grown (or should be
grown—if it’s not being grown by even lower-waged
agricultural workers in other countries)? Though we may choose to
promote a strategy that is urban-centered, we need to ask ‘where
will our food come from?’ and how are the organizing efforts of
rural workers part of this larger strategy?

Is our strategy limited to that of developing capacity to stop
production and dealing a financial blow to capital? Or are we
building or promoting a vision of a broad social movement that has
capacity to organize all sectors of the working class possible,
including those sub-sectors of workers often ignored by traditional
‘stop production’ organizing?

Which raises the question: is anyone, today, arguing for a strategy
that is based specifically on point-of-production workers, and is
anyone insisting on defining the working class as limited to
industrial workers?

As I attended the conference with a friend, this conversation
provoked the suggestion that instead of asking ‘what is the
working class?’ we should consider asking the question, as they
do in England, ‘what are the working classes?’.

The second day of the conference, I saw presentation by the South
Street Workers in Philadelphia, who are organizing an entire street of
workers in the series of strip malls on South Street, grappling with
the challenges of organizing a multiracial and multicultural
workforce, some who are undocumented; and pushing the
boundaries of organizing out of the ‘union hall’ to the
community by organizing social events, walk-in medical clinic days,
and tax-preparation help. In this way, they are taking seriously the
task of building and strengthening a working class culture as a
preliminary step towards building a union. They seem to recognize
the forces at play that might impede workers from being willing to
organize consciously, and they open their events to all workers, not
just those who have joined the union. At this time, they are
grappling with the implications of that, and determining if it is still
an effective practice or if they need to begin ‘members only’
events to strengthen membership and whether it is time yet to do a
membership drive. Yet they remain committed to supporting the
strengthening of the working class culture on that street, not just
those workers who have signed the union card.

I cite this as an effective example of folks grappling with the
ideological reality of today. We do not live in a country or a time that
is friendly to unions or the working class self-defining itself. You can
see this by the number of clearly working class folks, working
dead-end jobs and living paycheck to paycheck who still identify
themselves as ‘middle class’. It seems that only within leftist
circles is it a positive thing to identify as ‘working class’. We
live in the aftermath of 50 or so years of anti-communist propaganda
and fear. We live in a time when the percentage of workers who are
part of unions is very small (less than 13%, I think), and most of
those unions are not spaces to build working class culture or to
empower people to take their lives and work into their own hands.
While there is lots of workplace struggle, there is not a powerful
movement of workers who are pushing at the ideological forces of
repression in the country and carving out space for unorganized
workers to say ‘hey—maybe taking collective action against
the boss is a good idea for us.’ Of course this happens anyway,
but in much more isolated circumstances, on a smaller scale.

So, these are all reasons that the South Street Workers, by
organizing a street of low-wage retail and service workers and
consciously building working class culture, seem to be responding to
the ideological state of the country today. Similar projects seem to be
emerging, with organizing by street in Brooklyn, a bilingual and
bicultural project called ‘Make the Road by Walking’,
focused particularly on the struggles of undocumented workers.
Through community support, they have gained thousands of dollars
in back-pay to immigrant workers who had been paid less than $3 an
hour due to their vulnerable immigration status. And a woman spoke
of an emerging project that is street based, I believe in Wisconsin.

Based partly on this, I believe when we talk of the working class, we
are not limiting ourselves to the organization of industrial workers;
but the language and theory people use to talk about the working
class reflects confusion about this. Articles written by Martin
Glaberman focus on point-of-production factory workers, and I often
have difficulty translating the ideas directly to apply them to other
sectors. And the assumptions made (for example by the young
organizer looking at the men in his warehouse) still tend to limit
‘working class’ on the basis of industrial work. Since many
types of industrial work have typically excluded women, this means
that tied to this particular definition ‘working class’ is the
expectation that this ‘working class’ be male, displaying
cultural habits and attitudes of those men traditionally working in
this sector. This is true even if we know it is not the reality and can
cite examples of important actions organized by women workers.
This bias adversely impacts our organizing, and we need to
challenge it directly, in our organizing and in our written analysis.

If we recognize that historically women’s labor has been
unwaged and outside the capitalist economic system (though often
essential to upholding it), then we begin to understand why when
women have entered the labor force, sometimes doing similar work,
this is still viewed as ‘outside’ the system. This idea has
made women’s labor peripheral to both the upholding of the
system (through workers doing their jobs like the bosses like) and
also the destruction of the system (by workers refusing to do their
jobs, or by insisting they will do their jobs as they see fit).

So, it is important that in our analysis of worker struggles, we do not
fall into the same trap of seeing this type of work as merely
incidental or ‘unstrategic’ because it has traditionally been
invisible or unwaged. Not to say that this low-paid service sector is
not capable of dealing a blow to capitalism.. But if large sectors of
women and immigrant workers fall outside the sectors that are
deemed ‘strategic’ to organize, could it mean that our
strategy is inadequate to meet the reality of today’s workers?.

Glabermans’s idea of ‘the action of workers precedes

The most pertinent challenge to Glaberman’s idea came from a
recorded presentation by Mumia Abu-Jamal. I do not have his direct
quote, but he said more-or-less ‘yes, but surely some kind of
consciousness precedes action’, and cited, as a challenge,
examples of white workers choosing to organize to exclude Black
workers from their shop. Yes, this is an example of consciousness,
but the consciousness of being White, not the consciousness of
being a worker.

Clearly it is not enough to say ‘action precedes
consciousness’, but we need to grapple with what kind of
consciousness exists that makes workers take action. Glaberman
states that it is the alienation the point-of-production worker
experiences that directly causes workers to take action and align
themselves with their fellow-workers. He explains it as a
‘natural’ phenomenon. I am not convinced this is enough of
an explanation, or if it once was true if it still is. Or, if it is
‘natural’, what are the ‘unnatural’ forces that
impede this alignment between workers? Clearly there are examples
of this.

The factory Glaberman describes is in many ways different than any
job I have worked (ranging from agricultural work and fast food in
high school to waitressing and service work, to dead-end paper
pushing, and eventually teaching) and so clearly I have not yet
worked in a factory. Every job I have worked, workers experienced
some degree or another of alienation, and had some level of
awareness of the contradictions in their situation. But it always
seemed like there are a lot of forces impeding impulses for the direct
action of workers to determine the conditions of their work. Clearly,
the impulses for self-determination are always there; but there are
other forces at play—of course including the constant surveillance
of workers, and the sense of scarcity that at any moment any worker
can be replaced. To me, this explains why white workers might
choose to organize based on whiteness (knowing the boss is usually
white) rather than being workers; they know that under the system
of white supremacy, they stand to gain rather than lose. White
supremacy poses a serious threat to worker-solidarity, particularly
since it often works—for the white worker.

‘Cross-race solidarity’ vs. the destruction of white

During the weekend, there was a certain amount of talk about
cross-race solidarity between workers. Staughton Lynd spoke of this
solidarity among men in prisons, particularly the rebellion at the
Ohio State Penitentiary in Lucasville, I believe in 1993.
Characterized by an unusual alliance between Black Muslims and
members of the Aryan Nations, Lynd has cited this as an example of
solidarity across racial lines to confront the system oppressing all
prisoners. While clearly, cross-race solidarity is one important
component of multi-racial organizing and confronting white
supremacy, I am uneasy with this example being held up as
cross-race solidarity.

For the members of Aryan Nations, it was no contradiction to their
political beliefs to align themselves with the Black Muslims, as it
was in their direct interest in opposing their conditions. While on a
practical level, the result of this was a challenge to the prison
system; this is not a clear-cut example of cross-race solidarity. So,
Lynd raised the question ‘how can we create this kind of
cross-race solidarity in workplaces”’ which, I believe may
not be the right question.

Noel Ingnatin gets at this problem in ‘Black Worker/White
Worker’, where he gives many examples of white workers
acting in solidarity with Black workers on the job (in their collective
self-interest) but who then take part in community organizing
projects which perpetuate white supremacy. He explains the
problem by identifying the ideology of white supremacy as a thing in
itself, which needs to be combated and destroyed.

While I have heard some people say ‘I’m not going to go in
and talk to my fellow workers, and folks I am organizing and use
words like ‘white supremacy’- because that alienates them.
We resolve those things through our collective actions; we’re a
multi-racial workforce’ etc etc. While collective action and
cross-race solidarity in struggle is clearly an important part of the
struggle against white supremacy; it is not the whole cake, and does
not in itself confront the ideology of white supremacy that so often
sabotages long-term cross-race alliances.

During an early workshop called ‘Militancy isn’t Enough:
the Objectives of Radical Organizing’ facilitated by Norm
Diamond, Norm framed the following question “Why are
mainstream unions they way they are?”

The participants’ responses were thoughtful, insightful in
describing the problems of mainstream unions, but after 25 minutes
none of the answers really answered the question ‘why’.
Norm acknowledged that people were describing very well what
exists, but so far could not identify the reasons behind this.
Responses like ‘workers sell themselves out too much’ and
‘union organizers are more like insurance salesmen’ and
‘unions are designed to keep power away from the hands of
workers,’ were a good start, but no one could answer why do
workers sell each other out? Why are union organizers like insurance
salesmen? Why is it dangerous for power to be in the hands of the
workers themselves?

It’s curious to me that in 25 minutes of loose discussion, white
supremacy was not mentioned even once as a possible cause to the
selling out of the strong workers movement early this century and its
evolution into today’s mainstream beaurocratic institutions. As
the group was mostly but not entirely made up of white workers, it
seems likely that white supremacy was not something they were
directly having to confront on a daily basis, hence its invisibility to
them. This demonstrates the difficulty of confronting an ideology
rather than a concrete flesh-and-blood enemy like the boss.

As Norm got philosophical later in the presentation and asked
‘what is reality’, asserting that our entire sense of reality is
based on what currently exists; therefore we often don’t even
know reality until it is in the process of change. (sounds deep but it is
relevant) This is why the Civil Rights Movement blew the top off
everything and fired up so many other important struggles. This
struggle changed people’s sense of reality and what is possible,
revealing underlying structures of oppression that had not been
visible to everyone before. It shifted what is real.

How do we know a thing like white supremacy exists and must be
combated, not just as an aspect of struggle with the boss or the
prison system, but as a thing in itself? We know because it is this
ideology, inside yet invisible to every white worker that makes him or
her a potential sell-out based on whiteness. What color, generally, is
the boss? What color, generally, is the union president? The union
representatives? Those working in the union bureaucracy? This
makes every white worker at least, prone to the temptation to
self-define based on whiteness (and the idea of moving up the ladder
to align with the union beaurocracy or eventually the boss) rather
than being a worker.

So, while there may be examples of cross-race solidarity based on
workplace struggles where confronting white supremacy is not
central to the struggle, I believe those alliances will be short-lived. It
is those struggles where workers take on the system of white
supremacy directly, where white supremacy is named as one of
those things upholding the system that holds all workers back (or
keeping all prisoners in prison), that have the most potential for a
type of truly radical shift. And yes, this means sometimes using or
introducing phrases like ‘white supremacy’ in organizing. It
also means deepening analysis of how, where, in what way the
struggle against white supremacy manifests itself in each workplace.
I believe this is much more difficult to do in workplaces that have
mostly white workers, though we need to figure this out (as those
industries will continue to exist and will be prime locations for the
white supremacists to organize if we let them go).

Tamara is a member of Bring the Ruckus. She lives in Portland
* Bring The Rukus is an antiauthotitarian anticapitalist
direct action revolutionary initiative.
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