I began this letter after the last Joint Council, and have written and rewritten it about three times. I kept coming back and re-writing because it’s been so hard to parse what happened to my comrades. Not those of you who are openly hustling for management and the international (I don’t give you a lot of thought these days, to be honest), but those who got swept up in this whirlpool of fear and malice and timidity.
I kept coming back to this letter because I genuinely couldn’t tell if, for many of you, it was a political dislike for grassroots unionism and a desire for hierarchy; or if it was personal grudges and pettiness taking precedence over the difficult work of building with difference; or if it was a move towards conservativism shaped by a deep fear of the very real forces rallied against us; or if it was just the endorphin rush of consolidating personal power and influence at the cost of a more dispersed collective strength.
I have never in my life seen a supposed “social justice” organizing body try So Hard to convince its members that they are powerless. Beyond this particularly disgusting moment in our union’s history, I’m heartbroken at wondering how many in this generation of students will be convinced that labor organizing is, at best, endless milquetoast for-the-sake-of-itself organizing without spine or teeth, and, at worst, directly worsens their material conditions. I’m deeply sad that we didn’t lean into the potential we could have had, to paste together a powerful collage of different organizing talents, visions, and tactics, with a broad member base differentially excited about tabling, and rallying, and legislative interventions, and direct action, and slower political education, and shutting shit down…and all holding these differences in real solidarity with one another. It would have been a dream.
I am quitting because I am not willing to participate in moving our union even further down the path of becoming nothing more than a defunct dues generator for the international, nor do I feel that I am in a position to effectively dissent from inside the leadership.
Even more fundamentally, though, I am quitting because I understand our union to be working hard to align ourselves with white supremacist histories of labor organizing and this is something I am no longer willing to be complicit in. Our union, as with most organizations and institutions, has always had a problem with whiteness, but I used to think (maybe naively) that there were enough people working to reckon with it, confront it, and build something different.
I continue to believe that labor organizing is a deeply powerful lever to move us towards a more just society, but we in unions and in labor movements will have to work twice as hard as many other organizations to undo default structures and norms of labor that were build explicitly for a world in which workers hold the power and workers are straight white cis men supporting their nuclear families. As many of us have been saying over the past year, This Is A Structural Critique.
My whiteness manifests in that I kept a certain optimism and hope for this space for longer than I should have. I should have listened more closely to the Black, POC, and radical spaces on campus, and the powerful organizers who hold a deep cynicism about the genuine interest of the union in following through in our publicized commitment to racial justice combined with worker power. I should have stopped for longer and been more thoughtful about the way in which the leadership has hemorrhaged so many experienced, radical (and especially queer and POC) unionists over this last year. I feel foolish for having taken so many of you at your word for so long, for having thought that all of the talk about Social JusticeTM came from a deeper place than leftist performativity. I don’t believe you any more, and you’re welcome to prove me wrong. I really hope that you do. I really hope that I’m eating my words a year from now when our union is less caught up in the fetish of business efficiency and neoliberal managerialism, and is throwing down hard for our collective liberation.
I’m sure there are many different justifications everyone is holding for themselves about what we’ve been doing and why. For me, I’ve realized that I don’t give a fuck about caucus politics, and I’m always willing to build with people who differ in style, analysis, or approach, but share certain deep principles. I’ve also learned to better recognize when these principles have been hollowed out from the inside and gnawed into meaningless and empty rhetoric. I have more thoroughly learned the importance of sound, democratic, institutional structures that can’t be as easily co-opted by cults of personality. I have learned how groupthink becomes pathological when it is used to criminalize dissent. For these, and other reasons, I’m grateful for having spent five years of my life in this space. I’m getting better at understanding impact over intent, and how so many of the decisions people in power in the union have been making over this last year, which I’m sure at least some of you saw as Good and Strategic and Right, have led to so much fracture and violence. I am every year getting better at recognizing which actions come from ego or a certain performance of politicking, or playing out some union boss fantasy, and which come from the urgency of something deeper at stake. It’s been instructive, and I’m grateful for the instruction, even recognizing what it’s cost me.
I was struck recently by adrienne brown’s insights on how organizations become dysfunctional and ineffective:
“So many of our organizations working for social change are structured in ways that reflect the status quo. We have singular charismatic leaders, top down structures, money-driven programs, destructive methods of engaging conflict, unsustainable work cultures, and little to no impact on the issues at hand. This makes sense; it’s the water we’re swimming in. But it creates patterns. Some of the patterns I’ve seen that start small and then become movement wide are:
- Burn out. Overwork, underpay, unrealistic expectations.
- Organizational and movement splitting.
- Personal drama disrupting movements.
- Mission drift, specifically in the direction of money.
- Stagnation–an inability to make decisions.
These patterns emerge at the local, regional, state, national, and global level–basically wherever two or more social change agents are gathered. There’s so much awareness around it, and some beautiful work happening to shift organization cultures. And this may be the most important element to understand–that what we practice at the small scale sets the patterns for the whole system.” (Emergent Strategy, p. 52-53).
I stayed in for so long because I think that dissent is important, and I thought that we could still build together with our differences towards a shared vision of a better world. I stayed despite my growing concern over this past year that we were beginning to mirror the university in its treatment of people as disposable revenue streams, its self-branding as progressive without material follow-through, the fetish of productivity over an ethic of care, the misogynistic devaluation of the insights that come from emotional sensitivity… But I’ve realized that you cannot build through difference if people are interested more in crushing dissent in the service of uncontested power, in presenting their particular aptitudes, organizing styles, and insights as the One True Path, and devoting their time to devaluing and destroying everything that can’t or won’t subordinate itself to their stunningly narrow vision. It’s borderline fascist, quite frankly, and I don’t toss that term around without knowing the history of its weight and heft. What we practice at the small scale sets the patterns for the whole system. Our small scale patterns have become explicitly violent, and that is not a system or a world I’m willing to be a part of creating.
For my comrades who are staying in and continuing to push to reclaim this space and its possibilities for radical grassroots power and liberation, a deep solidarity, and you know where to find me.