Leftist at Work
We are excited to launch the Leftist @ Work column, which is a space for leftists to talk about the ways in which they organize in their workplace – whether it is how they talk with coworkers about political issues, how they are trying to build or revitalize a union, or how they orient their political perspectives to sync with their daily jobs. Some leftists find themselves confronting issues they didn’t expect would come up in their work. In this month’s column, we read how Lynne Williams went into a union job ready to be a good union activist but soon realized how central gender, race and heteronormativity were to working with coworkers and how they built solidarity.
Other people find that they work for a non-profit or union that constrains their range of political activities. We’ll hear from organizers that struggle to balance their radical politics with the realities of working for an organization with more of a reform orientation.
We’ll also hear from people who may work in an unionized workplace but try to bring their broader politics into the workplace – such as anti-racism, anti-war, or pro-immigrant rights.
We also want to hear from you! Send us your stories of how you practice your politics in your workplace. This is the place where many people spend the majority of their waking hours. How do we build our politics to create solidarity with co-workers, and use our leverage as workers, to build the kind of world we want to live in? Let us know how you do it, or the kinds of challenges you’ve faced along the way.
I started working as a nurse in 2008. I chose to go into nursing because I wanted to do work where I thought I could make an impact organizing in the labor movement, but from a rank-and-file perspective. I feel that the labor movement, and unions, are crucial for any kind of serious social movement organizing in the US, and I think the most progressive, militant change will come from workers, rather than top-down efforts driven by staff.
I chose nursing, because I was really attracted to the physical skills, and working with patients in a way that you see immediate results. I felt I could see the impact of the work I did.
I want to share my story of how I came to be a waitress, a union member, and eventually, a Leftist committed to changing the world. I grew up in Philadelphia and was raised in a comfortable working class family. We were comfortable because my parents, a public school teacher and public school nurse, were union members. My best friend, my older sister, struggled with drugs, depression and school, and started working as a waitress at the age of 19. I went to public school and performed well, so I got a scholarship to go to college. In college, I was introduced to political ideas and union organizing. It inspired me to become a student organizer. Following college, I took a lesson from my sister who encouraged me to get a job if I was serious about worker rights. I decided to do union organizing as a worker so I could understand what it meant to fight for workers’ rights when my own job was on the line.
This piece is reposted with permission from New Poltiics, Summer 2012.
There isn't a working person alive today who hasn’t idly fantasized about taking control of their lives at work. For many, this is probably just a fantasy about tossing their boss out a window or poisoning their coffee, but others have a more expansive vision of challenging the system of control that gives you an arrogant, unqualified stooge to squeeze the life out of you in the first place.
Militants and radicals in the unions are the ones who take it upon themselves to find the path between those idle dreams and reality. Not so much on the murder front (I hope) but more how to edge forward in the battle for self-control over the course of our work and our lives. The path is rough. It dead-ends, and goes over cliffs. It goes through unexpected terrain where the tools you brought are useless and improvisation is a survival skill. Sometimes the way goes pitch-black and you muddle forward by sense of smell.
I have been a committed feminist since early in life, but these politics were reinvigorated when I began working as a technician in a predominantly male workplace. Being a feminist in theory is much different than being a feminist when some guy is shaking the 18-foot extension ladder you are working on; it requires a different relationship to your goals.
In my early years, though I did face real material struggles, my feminism was largely ideological. For me it took place in arguments and was often about being right. In my work as a rank-and-file activist, my socialist feminism has become more defined and concrete. It is about building solidarity among my coworkers which is not only “right” but also actively builds the kind of solidarity it takes to enforce and reproduce socialist-feminist politics.
Organizing Upgrade interviewed two New York union members about their experiences working with Occupy Wall Street.
Interview with David Martinez, art handler and mover at Sotheby’s auction house in New York City, and member of Teamsters Local 804.
Sotheby’s workers were locked-out from their jobs at Sotheby’s in August 2011, just before Occupy Wall Street began. Throughout the fall, a group of supporters and Occupy activists got involved in activities to support the locked-out workers. Unfortunately, the lock-out continues.
We are excited to launch the Leftist @ Work column, which is a space for leftists to talk about the ways in which they organize in their workplace – whether it is how they talk with coworkers about political issues, how they are trying to build or revitalize a union, or how they orient their political perspectives to sync with their daily jobs. Some leftists find themselves confronting issues they didn’t expect would come up in their work.