On political organizing
In 2007, when I was 21 years old, I wrote an indignant letter to the New York Times in response to a column by Thomas Friedman. Friedman had called out my generation as a quiescent one: “too quiet, too online, for its own good.” “Our generation is lacking not courage or will,” I insisted, “but the training and experience to do the hard work of organizing — whether online or in person — that will lead to political power.”
I myself had never really organized. I had recently interned for a community-organizing nonprofit in Washington DC, a few months before Barack Obama became the world’s most famous (former) community organizer, but what I learned was the language of organizing — how to write letters to the editor about its necessity — not how to actually do it. I graduated from college, and some months later, the global economy collapsed. I spent the next years occasionally showing up to protests. I went to Zuccotti Park and to an attempted general strike in Oakland; I participated in demonstrations against rising student fees in London and against police killings in New York. I wrote more exhortatory articles. But it wasn’t until I went to graduate school at Yale, where a campaign for union recognition had been going on for nearly three decades, that I learned to do the thing I’d by then been advocating for years.
By the time I started organizing so much that it felt like a full-time job, it was the spring of 2016, and I had plenty of company. Around the country there were high-profile efforts to organize magazines, fast-food places, and nursing homes. Erstwhile Occupiers became involved in the Bernie Sanders campaign and joined the exploding Democratic Socialists of America, whose members receive shabby business cards proclaiming them an “official socialist organizer.” Today’s organizers — not activists, thank you — make clear that they are not black bloc participants brawling with police or hippies plotting a love-in. They are inspired by a tradition of professional revolutionaries, by Lenin’s exhortation that “unless the masses are organized, the proletariat is nothing. Organized — it is everything.” Organizing, in other words, is unembarrassed about power. It recognizes that to wield it you need to persuade untold numbers of people to join a cause, and to begin organizing themselves. Organizing means being in it to win.
But how do you win? Historical materialism holds that crises of capitalism spark revolts, perhaps even revolutions, as witnessed in the eruption of Occupy and Black Lives Matter; uprisings in Spain, Greece, and Egypt; and the British student movement against tuition fees. But there’s no guide for what happens in the long aftermath, as the left has often learned the hard way.
In previous moments of upheaval and promise the left has often turned to Antonio Gramsci, who sought to understand why working-class revolts in Europe following the Russian Revolution had led to fascism. Gramsci concluded that on some level people consent to subservience, even take it for granted, when the order in which they live comes to seem like common sense. Hegemony was subtler than outright coercion, more pervasive, permeating the tempos of daily life.
It was hegemony, Stuart Hall argued in 1983, that was key to understanding the disappointment of his own generation — why Thatcher and the new right had triumphed in remaking common sense after a decade of labor union revolt. Hegemony shaped how people acted when they weren’t thinking about it, what they thought was right and wrong, what they imagined the good life to be. A hegemonic project had to “occupy each and every front” of life, “to insert itself into the pores of the practical consciousness of human beings.” Thatcherism had understood this better than the left. It had “entered the struggle on every single front on which it calculated it could advance itself,” put forth a “theory for every single arena of human life,” from economics to language, morality to culture. The domains the left dismissed as bourgeois were simply the ones where the ruling class was winning. Yet creating hegemony was “difficult work,” Hall reminded us. Never fully settled, “it always has to be won.”
Graduate school, I came to realize, was not the place to go to learn about politics.Tweet
In other words, there is no economic deus ex machina that will bring the revolution. There are still people, in their stubborn, contradictory particularities, as they exist in concrete space and time. It is up to you to figure out how to act together, or not; how to find common ground, or not. Gramsci and Hall insist that you must look relentlessly at things and people as they are, face your prospects with brutal honesty, and act in ways that you think can have an effect. In these ways they are an organizer’s theorists.
But in fact, one doesn’t become an organizer by reading theory, or at least I didn’t. I went to graduate school to study political theory, in hopes of figuring out what to do about the dilemmas that weighed on me. But it took something else to give that theory meaning in my own life. This was the experience of graduate school, which wasn’t necessarily your typical workplace — so the Yale administration kept telling us.
I’d joined the union as a matter of course, stopping by the Graduate Employees and Students Organization (GESO) table at the extracurriculars fair before I’d gone to a single day of class. Politically, it seemed obvious: I supported unions in general, so why not join? Plus my college roommate had been at Yale and organizing for years already: I’d heard from him of struggles and triumphs, of how he’d knocked doors all summer to help a slate of union members and supporters take over city government the year prior. A few days after I signed my card, I went to a union pizza lunch in my department to welcome our new cohort — I was one of just three people who’d showed up, out of seventeen — and nodded along with the organizer’s rap about why the union was good. I didn’t need convincing.
Yet when another organizer asked me to join the union communications team a few weeks later, I burst into tears. I was already completely overwhelmed with hundreds of pages of reading I couldn’t possibly hope to complete, response papers to write and presentations to give on said reading, obligatory departmental workshops and talks to attend. Doing one more thing seemed impossible. She talked me down from panic and I agreed to do something small — an interview with a union member for a newsletter we hoped to revive. I took on a series of other projects — more interviews, filming testimonials for a new website. At the end of our first year, my closest friend in my graduate cohort ran for a municipal office on the union slate, and I spent the summer knocking doors for his campaign. I met up with other organizers for “visits,” where we walked around campus looking for members to sign whatever petition we were running at the time, and joined my department’s organizing committee. I cried in many more meetings.
Graduate school, I came to realize, was not the place to go to learn about politics. I was bewildered by its rituals, which counterintuitively seemed structured around avoiding intellectual conversation in favor of gossip and shoptalk. At house parties and department receptions, we rarely talked about the things we’d read or thought about; instead we complained about how many papers we’d written that week, how many deadlines loomed for funding applications or summer programs, how little sleep we’d gotten. We tiptoed around more sensitive conversations: access to mental-health care, caring for children on a stipend, the cratering job market and growing pool of adjunct labor. I was desperate for those conversations, and organizing, I found, was the way to have them. Like a consciousness-raising group, 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. The point was to locate the fundamental experience of powerlessness lurking beneath the generalized misery. Yet for all that we griped about how much we worked, in organizing conversations the question of whether we were really workers came up constantly.
Why was it so hard to see ourselves as people who might need a union? Gramsci had observed that any individual’s personality was “strangely composite,” made up of a mixture of beliefs, thoughts, and ideas gleaned from family history, cultural norms, and formal education, filtered through their own life experiences read through the prevailing ideology of the time. Hall had taken this up to argue that when the working class failed to espouse revolutionary thought, women to embrace feminism, or people of color to advocate antiracism, it wasn’t because they suffered from false consciousness. The idea that consciousness could be true or false simply made no sense: it was always, Hall stated, “complex, fragmentary, and contradictory.” This was just as true for those on the left as for anyone else. “A tiny bit of all of us is also somewhere inside the Thatcherite project,” Hall had warned in 1988. “Of course, we’re all one hundred per cent committed. But every now and then — Saturday mornings, perhaps, just before the demonstration—we go to Sainsbury’s and we’re just a tiny bit of a Thatcherite subject.”
The Thatcherite project was since then much advanced, and we had internalized its dictates. For our whole lives we had learned to do school very well; in graduate school we learned to exploit ourselves on weekends and vacations before putting ourselves “on the market.” Many of us still believed in meritocracy, despite learning every day how it was failing us. The worse the conditions of academic life became, the harder everyone worked, and the harder it became to contest them. Plus, we were so lucky to be there — at Yale! Compared to so many grad students, we had it good, and surely jobs were waiting on the other side for us, if for anyone. Who were we to complain? Organizing a union of graduate students at Yale seemed to many like an act of unbearable privilege — a bunch of Ivy League self-styled radicals doing worker cosplay.
Then there was the prevailing ideology. Many people liked unions in the abstract, for other people, but had reservations about whether one made sense for us. We worked independently for the most part (getting paid to read!); we exercised control over our own work — or at least hoped to one day. Nearly all of us had grown up hearing about how bad teachers’ unions were for our own precious educations. Few of us came from union families; almost no one had belonged to a union before, and those who had sometimes cited bad experiences. Even among those who were nominally sympathetic, “I think unions are good, but . . . ” was a common refrain.
The really controversial thing, though, wasn’t joining the union but organizing it. We asked people to help build the union, and to help lead it. We asked them to sign a card, then to ask a friend to sign one, too; to commit to meeting regularly with an organizer; to join the organizing committee and bring the people they knew to meetings and to rallies. We asked a lot — too much, some thought. Many people were happy to sign a membership card and a petition from time to time but didn’t want to go to more meetings or talk to colleagues about the union: they were already busy, so busy. They supported the union, they said, but they wanted it to leave them alone.
This seemed like a distinctive challenge of organizing graduate students, who on the one hand were notoriously overworked and never really off the clock, and on the other were not quite immiserated, at least at Yale. (In fact, this was partly because the university had increased graduate stipends and benefits over the years in order to undercut the union; it was the price of success.) Yet I came to think it was part of the challenge of organizing more generally. Reading Charles Payne’s I’ve Got the Light of Freedom, about civil rights organizing in the Jim Crow South, I was struck by the list compiled by Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) canvassers of reasons black Mississippians gave for not wanting to register to vote in the early 1960s, which could by and large have been given by grad students: “Just not interested.” “Don’t have the time to discuss voting.” “Feel the politicians are going to do whatever they want, regardless of votes cast.” “Too busy, engaged in personal affairs.” “Wants time to think it over.” “Satisfied with things as they are.”
We were not, of course, fighting Jim Crow. Yale was miserable and feudal in many respects, but we were there temporarily and by choice; many of us feared our advisers but did not fear for our lives. We might give the same excuses, but they didn’t mean the same things. Still, certain dynamics of the two organizing campaigns were similar, despite the obvious differences. People often told you why they weren’t going to do something, often with perfectly good reasons, and you tried to convince them that they should.
We were all too busy, but the too-busyness wasn’t really about time, or at least not only. Being too busy meant people didn’t see why the union was worth making time for. Your job as an organizer was to find out what it was that people wanted to be different in their lives, and then to persuade people that it mattered whether they decided to do something about it. This is not the same thing as persuading people that the thing itself matters: they usually know it does. The task is to persuade people that they matter: they know they usually don’t.
“The beginner who has learned a new language always translates it back into his mother tongue,” Marx observed in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, “but he assimilates the spirit of the new language and expresses himself freely in it only when he moves in it without recalling the old and when he forgets his native tongue.” Organizing requires you to learn the language of politics so well that it becomes your own. Like any other language, it takes a lot of practice, during which time you often feel awkward and unsure. For this stage there are exercises like “stake, take, do,” which lays out a sequence of questions for you: What is at stake for you? What will it take to win? What will you do about it? You have to start with what matters to you and the person you’re organizing before jumping into how hard it’s going to be and why they should do it anyway. These exercises are useful, but they can be stiff and artificial, because you’re not really speaking politics yet: you’re still translating. It’s why new organizers often sound slightly robotic, repeating something they’ve clearly learned from someone else. But eventually you learn to leave this scaffolding behind and speak as yourself.
You have one body and twenty-four hours in a day. An organizer asks what you’ll do with them, concretely, now.Tweet
Often, however, you have to learn to speak differently — to speak as a different version of yourself. This means discarding many of your most familiar habits. Like many women, for a while I managed to get by on likability; I was already good at a certain kind of emotional labor. But as the asks got bigger, I hit a wall: people might spend thirty seconds signing a petition they didn’t think mattered much because they liked me, but they weren’t going to piss off their boss just to stay in my good graces. So I had to learn something else. “An axiom of organizers,” writes Jane McAlevey, “is that every good organizing conversation makes everyone at least a little uncomfortable.” The most awkward part is what McAlevey calls “the long uncomfortable silence” — the moment when you make an ask and let someone think about their answer. For a long time my biggest weakness was my tendency to shy away from making sure people knew that winning the things they said they wanted was up to them. Too often I tried to gloss over the discomfort instead of letting it sit. It was a lot easier to talk about our brilliant plan or how much support we had from our allies than to insist with the people I was organizing that whether we won our own union or not depended on them. As a result, people saw me as the union person who would deliver information and lay out a plan and keep them posted; they did not see themselves as union people who were also responsible for helping to win the things they said they wanted. McAlevey would call this a shortcut; we called it protecting people from the organizing. To soften the ask seems compassionate, but like any other protective measure, it condescends, and like any other shortcut, it makes things harder in the long run.
Realizing that it was not enough for people to like me was revelatory. I had to learn to be more comfortable with antagonism and disagreement, with putting a choice in front of people and letting them make it instead of smiling away tension and doing the work myself. I had to expect more from other people. With other organizers, I role-played the conversations I feared most before having them; afterward, I replayed them over and over in my head. I struggled to be different: the version of myself I wanted to be, someone who could move people and bend at least some tiny corner of the universe.
It’s not easy to be the site of a battle for hegemony. It’s not a beatific Whitmanesque “I contain multitudes”; it’s an often painful struggle among your competing selves for dominance. You have one body and twenty-four hours in a day. An organizer asks what you’ll do with them, concretely, now. You may not like your own answer. Your inner Thatcherite will raise its voice. You can’t kill it off entirely; you will almost certainly find that it’s a bigger part of you than you thought. But organizing burrows into the pores of your practical consciousness and asks you to choose the part of yourself that wants something other than common sense. It’s unsettling. It can be alienating. And yet I also often felt I was finally reconciling parts of myself I’d tried to keep separate — what I thought, what I said, what I did. To organize, and to be organized, you have to keep in mind Hall’s lesson: there is no true or false consciousness, no true self that organizing discovers or undoes. You too, Hall reminds us, were made by this world you hope to change. The more distant the world you want to live in is from the world that exists, the more deeply you yourself will feel this disjuncture. “I’m not cut out for this,” people often say when they struggle with organizing. No one is: one isn’t born an organizer, but becomes one.
The sober, unsexy character of organizing is often reromanticized in paeans to the “real work.” Organizing’s defenders are the most likely to insist that it is boring. For a generation maligned as flighty and self-absorbed, the mundanity and dullness signify authenticity, like political normcore. Organizing signals heroic commitment rather than faddish dilettantism, a noble resolve to do something in real life rather than trade memes in Facebook groups or dunk on Twitter enemies. It’s true that organizing is the day-to-day work of politics — what Ella Baker called “spadework,” the hard labor that prepares the ground for dramatic action. But I’ve never understood the charge of mundanity. Canvassing on a slow day can be tedious, but no other part of organizing has ever felt dull to me. Quite the opposite: nothing has ever felt more thrilling or more wrenching. Nothing has ever been harder to do, or harder to stop thinking about.
In The Romance of American Communism, Vivian Gornick tells a story I think about often, about a young woman tasked with selling the Communist Party newsletter The Daily Worker. “My God! How I hated selling the Worker!” she recalls. “I used to stand in front of the neighborhood movie on a Saturday night with sickness and terror in my heart, thrusting the paper at people who’d turn away from me or push me or even spit in my face. I dreaded it. Every week of my life for years I dreaded Saturday night. . . . God, I felt annihilated. But I did it, I did it. I did it because if I didn’t do it, I couldn’t face my comrades the next day. And we all did it for the same reason: we were accountable to each other.”
No one ever spat in my face, but the rest I recognize. Though I didn’t always dread organizing, I often woke up with a pit in my stomach, thinking of the phone calls I’d have to make that day and the people I was supposed to catch in the hallway after class. If anything, it was worse: the people I was talking to weren’t strangers on the street, but friends and colleagues. It hurt when they stopped picking up the phone or looked away in the halls. Why on earth did I keep doing it?
Why did anyone? Because of their political beliefs? Maybe at first — I didn’t want to be an armchair revolutionary. But sheer ideological conviction is rarely a predictor of someone’s organizing stamina. More importantly: because your father was in a union, or — more likely — your mother needed to be; because your friend needed child care or you needed a therapist. These things genuinely mattered. But at some point you took a leap into excess. Was I really organizing forty hours a week because I wanted dental? At the rate we were going, I was unlikely to see any of the benefits anyway.
If much of my daily struggle was against the experience of grad school itself, I had also been looking for something like the union for a long time. I had ended up at the community-organizing nonprofit all those years prior after a few months spent volunteering with an anarchist collective in the ruins of New Orleans after Katrina, frustrated with the limits of mutual aid in the face of total state breakdown, and had been grasping for some kind of political activity that was both transformative and pragmatic ever since. Organizing was all about that dialectic. The union connected our demands — which were real but not exactly world-historical — to the long history of labor struggles, contemporary efforts to rebuild worker power, visions of a radically different future that we could play a role in bringing about.
So we demanded bread and butter, but we were ultimately organizing for the future of academic life, which was visibly crumbling around us; or for the revival of the labor movement, which had mostly already crumbled; or because it was intolerable to live in a city as segregated as New Haven and not do something about it. That our union had been organizing for three decades was both motivating and burdensome. We knew the past triumphs and failures, attachments and wounds; we inherited hope and melancholy. In this, it was not unlike the broader left: so much history, so much struggle — sometimes too much. We knew we had tuition waivers and stipends and health care because of the union; still, the fact that no one yet had won the whole thing in the end could be sobering. Why would we be the ones to succeed where so many others had failed? But it was also comforting: as there was GESO before us, so there would be GESO after. The campaign to unionize US Steel had taken nearly fifty years; more recently, Smithfield Foods had taken twenty-four.
Sometimes I felt I was organizing for the future of the entire world, in a deductive train that went: capitalism was going to devastate the planet; to fight it we needed strong unions, which meant new organizing, particularly in low-carbon fields like teaching, which meant building the academic labor movement — which meant that I needed to unionize the Yale political science department. It was absurd. Could I have been more quixotic, more grandiose, more self-important? Our style of organizing was intense, often all-consuming, and I knew that, too. I didn’t always like it. Often I longed for a nice life, an easy life, the life of the mind that academics were supposed to have. Couldn’t I just go to demonstrations here and there on the weekends before stopping off for groceries, the way I had before?
But that hadn’t worked. And the gap between the smallness of everything I could realistically do and the largeness of everything I wanted to happen was so immense. I was deeply pessimistic, intellectually. The time in which to transform the global economy in order to prevent untold death and destruction shrank daily, and the forces of reaction grew stronger just as fast. So I wanted to do something ambitious and hard: something commensurate with the monstrosity of the world, with the distance of utopia and the nearness of catastrophe. There was so much I wanted to change, so many people I wanted to move. In the daily struggle to build the union and beat the boss and the odds, I saw something I desperately wanted to learn.
The relationality of organizing is maybe the hardest thing to understand before you’ve done it. But it is the most important. This is not because people are governed by emotions instead of reason, though they sometimes are. It’s because the entire problem of collective action is that it’s rational to act collectively where it’s not to act alone. And you build the collective piece by piece.
Organizing relationships can be utopian: at their best, they offer the feminist dream of intimacy outside of romance or family. 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. When I needed help, there were always people I could call, people who would always pick up the phone, people I could and did talk to about anything. These relationships often served as a source of care and support in a world with too little of those things. But they were not only friendships, and not only emotional ballast. The people I looked to for support would also push me when it was called for, as I would them; that, I knew, was the deal.
Our relationships forged the practical commitments to one another that held the union together. They made us accountable to each other. They were difficult and multifaceted, often frustrating, intensely vulnerable, and potentially transformative but no less prone than any other relationship to carelessness, hurt, and betrayal, and always a lot of work. We were constantly building them and testing their limits, pushing each other harder the closer we got. They had to bear a lot of weight. In more abject moments, I wondered whether they were anything more than instrumental. More often, though, I wondered what was so menacing about usefulness that it threatened to contaminate all else.
The word comrade, Jodi Dean argues, names a political relationship, not a personal one: you are someone’s comrade not because you like them but because you are on the same side of a struggle. Comrades are not neighbors, citizens, or friends; nor are they any kind of family, though you might call them brother or sister. The comrade has no race, gender, or nation. (As one meme goes: “My favorite gender-neutral pronoun is comrade.”) Comrades are not even unique individuals; they are “multiple, replaceable, fungible.” You can be comrades with millions of people you have never met and never will. Your relationship is ultimately with the political project you have in common. To many noncommunists, Dean readily admits, this instrumentalism is “horrifying”: a confirmation that communism means submitting to the Borg. But the sameness of the comrade is a kind of genuine equality.
Being an organizer is like being a comrade in some ways but different in others. The people you organize alongside may be comrades, but the people you are organizing often aren’t; the point of organizing, after all, is to reach beyond the people who are already on your side and win over as many others as you can. So you can’t assume the people you organize share your values; in fact, you should usually assume they don’t. This means that unlike comrades, organizers aren’t interchangeable. It matters who you are. McAlevey’s theory of the organic leader is that people have to be organized by people they know and trust, not by strangers who claim to have the right ideas. The SNCC looked for “strong people” — not necessarily traditional leaders, but people who were respected and trusted among their peers, on the logic that people would only take risky political action alongside people they trusted. When organizers reflect the people they organize, they win: when women of color organize other women of color, a 2007 paper by Kate Bronfenbrenner and Dorian Warren shows, they win almost 90 percent of elections. This cuts both ways: when women and people of color led the organizing in my department, we often struggled to get white men to take us seriously.
Yet the comradely element of organizing can also open up space for building relationships with people beyond those boundaries. It’s not that class and race and gender disappear, transcended by the cause — but the need to work together to achieve a shared end provides a baseline of commonality that makes it possible to relate across difference and essential to figure out how. That’s why you meet people one-on-one and talk about what you both care about, why you open up to someone you only know as a colleague or share with a stranger things you hardly even discuss with your friends. It’s why I cried about the humiliation of the grad-school pecking order with my organizer when I wouldn’t admit to anyone else that I was struggling. One-on-ones are countercultural: the conversations you have in them challenge your default expectations of who you can relate to, force you outside of the demographic categories that organize most of your life and the scripts you’ve learned for interacting with people accordingly. You build trust with people you have no prior reason to trust not simply by affirming your commitment to the shared project, your devotion to the Borg, but by coming to understand what brought someone else to it.
In August 2016, the National Labor Relations Board issued the decision the academic labor movement had been waiting on for nearly the entire Obama presidency, declaring graduate workers eligible for labor protections. Graduate students across the country had been saying we were workers all along, but now the government agreed, and cited our efforts as part of the reason why. Our union filed for elections in ten departments the next week. It had suddenly become very real to everyone.
The first meeting in my department after we filed went nearly two hours over schedule. Almost everyone in political science was a union member on paper, but not all of them were sure they would vote yes. How much would the dues be? What would we get in a contract? Would the union make us go on strike? Would the other Yale locals make us go on strike? Would the international union we were affiliated with make us go on strike? What decision rules would we operate by? What decision rules were we operating by now? Did we have bylaws? Would Yale retaliate? Why mess with something that was pretty good already? Who had appointed us organizers anyway? Many were suspicious of organizing itself: we said that grad students should be able to choose for themselves whether they wanted a union, but here we were trying to convince people that they did. It didn’t seem very democratic. Why not just take a vote right away? We could even do it online — the software was pretty good these days.
I thought the union was intensely democratic — we were, after all, seeking some amount of self-rule in our workplace and asking more people to take part in it. But democracy was more than aggregating our individual preferences or adhering to procedures; it was more like the attempt to find the general will. We were declaring ourselves a people, and that meant coming to see ourselves as part of a collective, not just a sample of rational actors. We want nondomination, another political theorist in the department said; things are pretty good now, but we’re vulnerable to arbitrary power. This went over surprisingly well with the empiricists. Finally — the academic discussion I’d been waiting for! In any case, it was true that I wanted to persuade people of my position. I thought the union was good, and important, and I wanted them to vote for it. But I didn’t just want their votes; I wanted them to want the union. There was no union without them.
Through the fall I organized like my life depended on it. An inveterate night owl, I began getting up early to go to morning meetings. I’d wake to a cluster of messages about plans for the day — where things stood with a petition, who I needed to talk to about signing it, who I needed to talk to about talking to someone else, when updates on my progress were expected — and try to shake off my anxiety in the shower. I dreaded everything in the morning. But once I was out of the house, I often loved my days.
They were long and exhausting. It was astonishing how much work everything took, how many minor crises could erupt in the course of a day, how many long-planned events came down to arrangements made at the last minute. I met the people I organized; I met my organizer; I met groups of organizers — in my department, across the union, across the city. I was constantly on the phone. I scarfed down protein bars between meetings and greasy slices at the pizzeria that served as the unofficial union hangout. My last meetings ended around eight; I went to the gym afterward and ran on the treadmill while simultaneously texting updates, cursing at presidential debates on CNN and fuming at whoever had most recently ranted about politics on Facebook but not called me back. I shared my apartment with two other grad students and a rotating cast of friends who had left New Haven long ago but now were returning to organize, crashing at our house on an air mattress in what was essentially an oversized closet. When I got home late at night I ate eggs on toast, the only meal I could be bothered to make, and wrote emails — so many emails.
Often I was resentful: How had I let this happen to my life? I had started out asking a couple of people to sign the occasional petition and stepped up gradually to pitch in where needed, and had somehow ended up responsible for my whole department. I sometimes felt trapped: if I quit, which I often wanted to do, I’d let down my fellow organizers, my department, the whole union, members of the other unions at Yale, our allies in New Haven, the housekeepers in hotels across the country whose dues were paying for our campaign, every grad student who’d ever worked to organize the union for the past thirty years. In my angriest moments I blamed the people who had gotten me started organizing in the first place. They hadn’t told me it’d end up like this, that organizing would take over my whole life. I understood why people were reluctant to start doing this themselves. I realized all too well how it could spiral. But I was often angry at them, too. How did anyone expect anything to happen? Who did they expect to do all the work?
It wasn’t fair: in fact, many people were up for doing a lot of things. As the election loomed, our people came to rally after rally, talked through update after update. They sat through NLRB hearings, in which faculty said we contributed nothing to the university, and went together to administrators’ offices to deliver petitions saying they wanted a union. They took their pictures for the union, wore union buttons in class and while teaching, filed grievances and wrote op-eds about the things they wanted in a union contract. They were honest about their misgivings but also about why they really did want to win.
On the night of the 2016 presidential election I stayed up very late. I woke up a few hours after Trump’s victory speech to go to a union meeting, hungover and exhausted but grateful to have something to do. Our election, at least, was still to come, and I was more determined than ever to win it. I went to meetings every day for the next six months, usually more than one, and I was grateful for nearly all of them. Family and friends elsewhere described feeling despair, depression, fear. But I wasn’t mourning — I was organizing! I rode a wave of righteous exhilaration. I was sure that if everyone in the country who thought as I did was doing what I was, things would be very different. We would show that the left could win despite Trump.
But if the wave of history was still cresting, it increasingly seemed more likely to crush us than carry us to victory. We had expected to vote at the end of 2016; we had also expected a Clinton presidency. Trump had pandered to workers but labor still had a huge target on its back. We finally got our election order at the end of January, a few days after Trump’s inauguration. We voted a few weeks later.
On the eve of the election, I realized I had never wanted anything so much in my life, and had never wanted so badly something over which I ultimately had so little control. I had organized all I could, but at the end of the day, people would make their own choices. It was a strange feeling, after a life spent chasing individual achievement, to want something that I could only have if other people wanted it too. And if on the one hand organizing was an exercise in learning that you could do so much more than you thought — that you could talk to people, find out they wanted the same things you did, and fight together — it was also a lesson in limits. You simply could not make someone do something they had decided not to do.
We won in my department, with exactly the number of yes votes we’d counted on. And we won in all but one of the other departments in which we’d filed, most in a blowout. That night, we sang “Solidarity Forever” while hugging one another in the university building where the election had been held and, later, walking down the street on the way to my house once the bar had closed, mumbling the verses but bellowing the chorus.
It wasn’t the end. We needed a contract, which meant we needed to make Yale negotiate with us, something they clearly had no intention of doing. Our best shot was to get the NLRB to certify our election result before Trump appointed a Republican majority: at that point, Yale would have no more legal recourse and would have to break the law to bust our union. But in the meantime, they could simply run out the clock through months of legal appeals. (We had all by now become experts on the dysfunctions of federal labor law.) We would have to force the administration’s hand — but only a few weeks remained of the semester. The thirty-odd members of the union’s cross-departmental decision-making body, nominally elected by our departments but realistically in our positions by virtue of our willingness to do an ungodly amount of organizing, decided to do what we could with the time we had: we would undertake a month of intensive action in order to shame Yale into backing down. At the center of the campaign would be a group of union members who would fast on a rotating but continuous basis. The fast was the really controversial thing, debated over two intense days of meetings; it was the thing that seemed to aggravate the tension between our relatively comfortable position and our commitment to full-blown combat with the administration. Weren’t hunger strikes the tactic of prisoners and others operating from a position of weakness, with nothing left but their bodies to use? Wasn’t this a step too far, even for us? I’d been skeptical at first; a fast didn’t seem inappropriate so much as embarrassing, like something a small group of overeager undergrads would do. We were a well-organized union with hundreds of members coming fresh off an election victory; surely we could do better. But I couldn’t imagine organizing a strike in a month. UNITE HERE had a history of using fasts as a tactic, following Cesar Chavez’s fasts for the United Farm Workers. I came to think it was our best shot, and set about convincing other people.
There was always a next step; I was finally beginning to realize there always would be.Tweet
Our union overnight became an insurrectionary outfit engaged in quasi-guerrilla warfare. Every day for a month we did everything we possibly could to disrupt the daily life of the university and make ourselves impossible for Yale to ignore. We staged feint actions to distract Yale’s cops, built a massive structure in front of the president’s office on Beinecke Plaza, and camped out around the clock to defend it, prepared to take arrest if it was dismantled. The first night, dozens of people — union members, faculty, students, friends, supporters — stayed at the structure all night, reading and talking and grading and playing games in some kind of prefiguration of academic utopia that I felt I would have done anything to preserve. Wisely, Yale let it be. Playing up Yale’s union-busting, we dropped banners reading trump university in the business school library and got a faculty member to write about our hunger strike in the New York Times. We chanted outside the president’s house, fresh off a $17 million renovation, and outside the Greenwich mansions of Yale Corporation board members on Sunday mornings while their neighbors literally rode by on horseback. I believed that we would win: my intellect and will were in perfect alignment. I didn’t think twice before fasting for nine days. In many ways it was easier than organizing: all I had to do was not eat. In a manic email I wrote to a friend six days in, I called it “weirdly serene.” My mother worried but also pitched in: she publicly confronted Gina Raimondo, a trustee of the Yale Corporation till then favored by my mother by virtue of being Rhode Island’s first female governor, for failing to back the union while her daughter wasted away.
The university waited out the barrage of negative press and took down our structure after the semester had ended, when campus was quiet in the wee hours before alumni weekend. Later that summer, my organizers asked me to take a leave of absence from school and organize full-time for the continuation of the contract campaign in the fall. Any day now — any day now! — the NLRB would hand down our final certifications. We would be in a strong position to escalate again when school started up again in the fall.
I realized we had to escalate; I recognized that I could help. I just didn’t want to do it. Once the euphoria of the month of action had subsided, I had crashed. I was exhausted. My will was flagging. I didn’t want to spend my days calling people who were pissed off about all the drama of the fast and asking them to talk it through with me, to talk about how even though we hadn’t won yet we still could, if they just did a few more things. I didn’t want to spend every day in low-level combat, absorbing everyone else’s bad feelings and trying to generate the energy to fight some more. There was always a next step; I was finally beginning to realize there always would be. I wanted to move to New York and finish my dissertation and take weekends off, or at least spend them working on my own projects like everyone else. I gave up my apartment in New Haven and started planning my move.
But I didn’t leave. To some it looked like I had been brainwashed: I had insisted I absolutely wasn’t coming back. And yet there I was. What had the union done to me?
No one was making me stay; no one really could. Other organizers could tell me why they thought I had to stay, but if I had really made up my mind to leave, I could live with that. I’d decided not to go on leave to organize once before. But this time I had agonized over the decision. The exhilaration of the spring had tilted wildly in the opposite direction. All I could see was fear and guilt in all directions. I was certain that I would regret either choice.
Why did I stay? Ultimately, for the same reason I had done everything else. I liked who I was when I put myself out there with other people again and again. I was braver and kinder, more generous and more confident. I wanted to live in a world where my voice mattered, where I could see the people around me as comrades instead of competitors. The union was imperfect in ways that I knew as well as anyone, but it was the closest I had come to that kind of world, and I simply could not convince myself that at that moment, for those few months, there was anything I could do that mattered more than trying to bring it into being.
We didn’t win. All summer the NLRB was silent. In the fall, Trump’s appointees were confirmed. Inside the union, things fell apart. We had been in what was supposedly the home stretch for months. We had asked a lot from people for a long time, pushed each other hard to hit our goals for rally turnouts and petition signatures. In the drive to force Yale to the table, our group of ultracommitted organizers had gotten out ahead of the rest of the membership and kept going; most of us had stretched our relationships in our departments as far as they would go, on the expectation that once we won, everyone else would come along. We had accepted these difficulties as the price of winning. But winning always seemed to be around just one more corner. Why would this time be any different? As our prospects faded, so did trust in the union leadership, which was predicated at least in part on the idea that we knew what we were doing. All the frustrations, criticisms, and resentments suppressed in the name of victory resurged: the union was undemocratic, delusional, instrumentalizing, manipulative. I struggled to hold things together through the worst few months of my life, and in the winter, I moved to New York, just a little behind schedule.
When I stopped organizing, my life returned to normal — at least, to the normal of my life before grad school, where I read about politics and thought about politics and talked about politics and wrote about politics but did politics hardly at all. I read more, I slept more, I ate better. I watched more TV. My life was nicer in many ways. With Brecht, I would gladly be wise. But you don’t get to choose your times. And in dark ones, I knew I was doing nothing that mattered.
I waited for someone to invite me to a meeting. No one did. Many days I talked to no one: it was astonishing how much time you could spend alone. I cried less; I laughed less. I worried about the job market and what people I didn’t know would think of me. Was this anxious, self-absorbed person really a more authentic self than the one I’d tried to forge? I hoped not.
I still thought about organizing all the time. I read and read, trying to understand what had happened, what had gone wrong. I saw different situations, different organizing styles, different stakes, but the same conflicts, the same tensions, the same breakdowns. The Romance of American Communism ends on a note of tragedy: Gornick finally understands the heartbreak of the Communists among whom she grew up as she watches the feminist movement to which she belonged dissolve into acrimony. Their fate, she comes to think, revealed the “agony at the heart of radicalism,” the “magnificent sorrow” of self-creation. But this isn’t the part of the essay where I conclude that political life is tragically impossible. It’s where I try to figure out how to get back to it.
The Labor Notes manual Secrets of a Successful Organizer ends with a secret for the unsuccessful one: “One hard reality about organizing: you’re going to fail a lot. You’ll lose more often than you win.” If the secret to winning isn’t really a secret — you just keep organizing and organizing and organizing so that along with all the losses and setbacks some victories start to pile up — then maybe the question of how to win is just a question of how to keep doing it, after you win and after you lose.
The union kept on. I worry I’ll never do anything like it again, and I worry that I will.