This week, our Community Organizing class discussed the Labor Movement and, specifically, the importance of worker power. Puya Gerami, our guest organizer this week, is the education director at SEIU 1199 New England and a doctoral candidate in the History department at Yale. In explaining what drew him to organized labor as a site of building power and transforming our world, Gerami detailed his personal experiences as he started working in the labor movement. He graduated from Columbia University, studying English and American Literature, at the height of the 2008 Great Recession. He was inspired by the Occupy Wall Street movement and when he returned to Connecticut, where he grew up, he became engaged with the work of the District 1199 New England union, which represents 25,000 workers across Connecticut in all healthcare fields. In the middle of the Great Recession, about 700 of its members voted to go on strike because their boss wanted to take away everything. Germi was assigned to help lead one of the picket lines. Through this experience, he saw working-class people come together from all over the world and for nine months, stand on a picket line. In the end, they won and returned to work. Gerami described being part of this as “pure magic.” These early experiences are what motivated him to become invested in the labor movement and union organizing he is currently involved with. Gerami also discussed how he balances his role as an academic, doing research in this field, as well as as an organizer. He explained how the questions he’s pursuing in his academic work are questions that emerged from his organizing work. He adds that he couldn’t imagine doing this scholarly work without this kind of social commitment in mind; the two inform one another and create a mutual feedback loop, as he calls it. He encouraged those of us who have academic interests but also interests in organizing to gain some organizing experience after graduating that would eventually benefit our academic work.
At the beginning of our conversation with Gerami, he introduced unionization as a mechanism of political power. Gerami defined unions as, put simply, an “organization of workers to join together to advance their common interests.” This framework of thinking was temporally significant, particularly because our class convened on election day—Tuesday, November 3rd. Rather than thinking about democracy and social change within the confines of the two-party system, we instead reimagined the ‘power of the people’ through a grassroots lens. It is the mass movement of working-class people—rather than political figures—who are able to alter the balance of power. Gerami further illuminated how this type of movement, the labor movement, is the prerequisite for racial, gender, and class liberation in the United States. It is only by having a strong, robust labor movement that we are able to achieve social justice and dismantle exploitation in all its forms.
Chapter three of organizer Jonathan Matthew Smucker’s book Hegemony How-To: A Roadmap for Radicals critically considers the internal politics of social movement groups and the potential obstacles they pose to a movement’’s long-term efficacy, especially as it relates to the crucial work of base-building and coalition-making. Using the term “ the life of the oppositional group,” Smucker warns against an obsessive focus on “insular ritual,” arguing that overtly self-referential distinctions of a political group’s internal life will frequently deter new members and lead to “encapsulation.” He notes that all successful groups must strike a careful balance between the sort of insular rituals that safeguard the wellbeing of its members while making sure not to inadvertently isolate themselves from potential base building opportunities. He writes: “To prevent insularity and encapsulation in our movements and organizations, core members have to take responsibility for ensuring that collective rituals and alternate narratives are oriented to connect with broader bases of society.” Additionally, Smucker details the damaging effects of metonymic political jargon, positing personal sacrifice as a long term tactical engagement, and of gatekeeping radicalism with exclusive narratives that triumph the “righteous few.” Smucker effectively highlights the power of messaging and strategic engagement with peripheral members as a critical and generative safeguard against encapsulation.