Helen Zhao | Doing Union: Reflections on SWC’s Spadework

By Helen Zhao

There is a great line in Alyssa Battistoni’s “Spadework”:

“…organizing conversations allowed you to air grievances long suppressed in the name of politeness or professionalism, to create a space for politics where it wasn’t supposed to be.” (italics mine)

I love it because its deceptively simple point cuts to the very heart of why so many of us organize, despite the pains and challenges, the cycle of losses and frustrated hopes. Today, we are so fractured, divided, lonely, and asocial under forces of capital that just talking to each other about our rent, medical bills, childcare, visas, and student debt is a powerful means of creating space for politics: a way of relating to each other that’s not only subversive and fugitive, but I would add, life-giving.

In just one of many passages, Battistoni beautifully describes what being part of a union could be like.

“In the union, I loved people I did not know very well. In meetings I was often overcome with awe and affection at the courage and wisdom of the people there with me. I came to count many of the people I organized with as my dearest friends.”

While once again, she captures a feeling and texture that many of us who have organized know intimately, in this post, I want to highlight a wrinkle that often gets swept aside in our heartfelt paeans to the power and politics of unions. While labor organizing can and often does have a utopic, loving dimension, there are many models of organizing that, unfortunately, are neither personally transformative nor solidaristic.

When I first arrived at Columbia, before SWC (back then GWC) had even won union recognition, active organizers in our union tended to be seen as experts on the union. They told the rest of us what to do, what the union’s staff and organizing committee wanted us to do, and anyone who was pro-union was simply expected to follow orders. There was not a lot of room for questioning or challenging our union’s leadership. Those of us less tutored on the mechanics of organizing could give ‘input’ on the union’s direction. We could fill out surveys about our workplace issues. But we weren’t supposed to debate organizing strategy or the union’s processes of internal governance. As a consequence, on especially bad days, the union felt like an exclusive club. At the top was an elite group of politically savvy student workers who knew all the jargon, were friends with the right people, and were privy to informal decisions. At the bottom was the rest of us, designated to follow.

It goes without saying that unions shouldn’t feel like this. When they’re democratic and member-driven and when people organize guided by the right principles, they don’t. Indeed, after a protracted, painful battle to win our first contract – after countless long evenings spent furiously debating each other about the importance of rank-and-file militancy and union democracy – SWC’s organizing culture now feels very different. Rather than one or two people telling the rest of us what to do, our union has lots of leaders. Through a more member-driven model of fighting the university and winning together, we’ve nourished new relations of care and collective power instead of recapitulating workplace hierarchies and forms of passivity that help the boss.

Different organizing cultures can be effective at building power. Organizers of all sorts can be good at getting people to sign cards, join a meeting, petition their boss, and even go on strike. But for organizing to have a utopic dimension of transforming the way we relate to each other, it’s been our union’s experience that, all the time, organizers must be doing things besides getting people to sign cards, join a meeting, petition their boss, or go on strike. We must be encouraging our less engaged coworkers to lead and think for themselves, not just to follow our lead. We must be bringing people, including those who are not Jane McAlevey’s ‘organic leaders’, into an ever-widening circle of decision-makers and building their leadership.

In SWC, we’re still in the habit of talking about the union as the ‘union’, as if it were a place or body outside of our lives, like an extracurricular or city agency. You ‘go to the union’ when you have trouble. You ‘talk to the union’ when you want to file a grievance. This talk makes sense in that our union is a sort of workers’ advocacy group that provides backup and legal support when you need to go up against your supervisor, PI, or school administration.

However, SWC is at a stage in its life history where, now, we can afford to think more expansively about what we are trying to build in the long run. Through organizing, we should be developing our union into something much more, much better than a workers’ advocacy group. The union shouldn’t be a place, a Zoom meeting, a listserv, a separate social body at all. It should be something that all of us who believe in building our union do every day in our workplace.

That is, our union should be a verb, not a noun. As organizers, we should be doing union, not only by undertaking the exhausting, important work of organizing walkouts, votes, and strike actions. We should be doing union by cultivating space, time, and permission for things that nourish our bodies and souls, like hanging out with coworkers, celebrating each other’s successes, having fun and being weird together, and making concrete “the feminist dream of intimacy outside of romance or family.” We should be staying alive to each other’s needs and wants, not just helping each other to overcome our fear and learned helplessness, but also cutting through the anomie, isolation, and persistently shared delusion fed by the neoliberal university that our lives go on, or can go on, independently and without each other.

To quote something someone else told me: the goal of organizing, the utopian dream it acts under, is to get people to realize that there is no collective action problem. When workers take action for their coworkers, they are not making a sacrifice, not doing something selfless. Fighting for others in their workplace is just fighting for themselves and their own futures. It is the most selfish thing anyone could possibly do.

Cultivating that feeling within ourselves and each other is, I think, the hardest job for organizing. It’s what comes to mind for me when I reflect on the ‘spadework’ that’s necessary to build on our union’s successes and, scaling up, rebuild and invigorate the wider labor movement.