Never do the expected
Being in that place of overlap between the student and labor movements can surely cause us sometimes to wonder just how we’re going to get out of the mess we’re in.
With both students and union members taking the role as scapegoats for the various ills our economy and society are facing today, those of us involved in and organizing with both movements can look at the obstacle course in front us, give a big sigh, and think, “How on Earth are we going to win this?” Well, there is no one answer, no silver bullet as it were. That was one thing that labor leader and racial justice fighter Bill Fletcher Jr. stressed last night when launching his new book “They’re Bankrupting Us!” And 20 Other Myths about Unions.
He talked about how he wants this book to be used as a reference, a guide for those who are not in the labor movement. In it, he deals with misconceptions about unions ranging from teachers’ unions and school reform to the idea that unions are no longer needed. He said that there was somebody he was writing the book for. He described a discussion with a woman on a flight once. He was reading a book about global labor solidarity, so she asked him what he was reading and he explained it to her. She then asked, “what is a labor union?” Without any hint of joking around; the woman simply didn’t know what a union was.
In addition to being a widely-accessible book, Fletcher also knew it was important to include criticism of the movement. There is a chapter on dealing with corruption and the mob within unions. During the Q and A that followed his presentation, there were a number of questions that drove the discussion in the direction of what unions have gotten right, what they’ve gotten wrong, and how they are being stubborn. It is this self-criticism that is often forgotten about and even suppressed in the movement. The ability of a movement to critique and criticize itself will ultimately make it a stronger movement, a more open movement, and a movement that can more easily defend itself.
A final thing that Fletcher said that should be reiterated here is the importance of not doing the easy, not doing the obvious. We will lost by not pushing the line on what we can win, we will lost by not engaging people in discussion that might seem taboo, and we will lost by not organizing as if our existence depends on it. We must not underestimate the power of our direct action organizing, and we cannot undervalue the relationships that we build between students and workers. Especially with this being an election year, it is easy to get lost in tactics, like voting, social media, and occupying. However those should be merely complements to our organizing, just other tools in our toolbox. As Fletcher said with the labor movement, we cannot do the expected. We must push the envelop with our vision and our organizing. Otherwise we will get stuck doing ultimately nothing over and over again. And we must do that now and we must do that loud. So here’s to building the movement as if everything we care about depends on it, and it very well may.