Why it’s hard to record beautiful, hidden moments in labor organizing

Recording history as it happens is much more complicated than it seems. Victories are often celebrated privately and hope grows from these shared experiences with other organizers. I wonder now, how and why are these stories about successful labor organizer harder to find?

The voices of workers provide important feedback on the type of community we want to live in and the type of economy we can sustain together. When it is omitted or skimmed over, we lose a crucial piece of how economies are negotiated and built together. Most importantly,  there is a lot of creativity that goes into successful campaigns for change. Especially when the side arguing to “stay the same” can play to the same “fears of loss” factors that are so powerful.

I appreciate the creativity that goes into successful labor negotiations and the complexity, what it takes to get to the negotiation table and win important victories for workers. But the power dynamics of the work place and the economy makes recording stories from our workers and our organizers challenging. Sometimes part of the negotiation is keeping information, and how things play out, a secret.

While I was researching leads for a story, I ran into a case where the story was so important and inspiring… but the organizer needed to remain in the shadows to organize successfully. I was caught in a tension of wanting to celebrate this story that made me more optimistic about the future of labor… but it’s success depended on keeping private, between negotiating parties.

It made me stop to think about the role journalism plays in recording history, but also the complex partnerships and conditions that have to form to make long term change possible.

Labor is an important part of our community and efforts to silence workers and organizers limit our ability to have honest political discussions. If the only people with a voice are the CEOs and stakeholders, we have a very weird and unrealistic image of what it means to work in the company or the current workforce. And long term… creating a working experience that is only pleasant for the C-suite is not sustainable for the fabric of our communities.

Organizers like Saul Alinsky and Dolores Huerta have shaped how we think about organizing people, from political campaigns to voter turn out, workers strikes, negotiation in many different settings, research methods and so much more. Their creativity and strength lead them through some seemingly impossible battles to come out on top. It also gave me hope that “social structures” do change, we can negotiate. That violence and money as two currencies for dictating the rules are not the only options.

As a student, I learned so much from groups like Unidad Latina en Accion (ULA) in New Haven, which is an amazing organization that supports undocumented workers and protects them when their wages are withheld, they suffer sexual harassment in their work places, and they are not protected by the full extent of their rights as guaranteed by the labor laws of Connecticut regardless of their immigration status.

In the last few years, I am also so excited about the work happening through Palak Shah at National Domestic Workers’ Alliance who is thinking about different ways to protect and negotiate for workers rights. The Worker’s Lab is another group working to improve working conditions through negotiations between workers and their employers. Carmen Rojas, from the Worker’s Lab, gave a talk at Personal Democracy Forum last year about some of the work place conditions improved by direct negotiation.

I spent time talking to other students who later became Union Organizers themselves. Some publicly, and others in a system where organizers work covertly, organizing from within the workforce. Both of these methods are important and offer different methods for negotiating work place conditions.

I, naively, wanted to celebrate both methods for organizing, hoping we could use public discussions to support workers and organizers, and maybe inspire a new generation of organizers who see there are people fighting for better. But I also needed to acknowledge that the organizers who are not public in their efforts are private because the secrecy is a necessary condition for their work.

While I want to preserve their present efforts in history to other students can read about it now and later, to add this layer of complexity and creativity to our labor history, but I cannot do so without compromising their work.

The power dynamic of these work places (typically hotels and other service sector businesses where workers are expected to be invisible or close to it) is that the leadership is set on keeping workers disorganized and afraid. The organizer preserves an alternative and devotes time and energy to helping support internal efforts among workers to organize for their negotiation. The organizer is not meant to be a public leader, the silence is also about being part of the team and not calling more attention to themselves than to the negotiation.

As I can relate from my more recent jobs, negotiation is a sensitive and often quiet process. Victories are often private moments, and failure requires quiet moments of recovery.

I frequently wonder if this covert organizing if the future of labor organizing. In an era where Unions have lost some of the favor they once had, my interest in labor issues usually ends up with the typical derogatory “Socialist” comment (because we have a nasty history here of black listing “communists” and anyone who is sympathetic to workers with a label), and where inequality is seems to only be increasing… Is the best way to protect workers completely off-record, hidden, and perhaps forgotten with time?

I wonder, too, about the role of journalists here. If they play an important role in recording history as it happens, are there sections of history we are meant to celebrate more privately and then lose to time? Or does this story sit in a sort of escrow until enough time has passed to record it, before it’s lost?

I am left with my questions to explore and waiting for ways to support organizers, as they need it.

Finding my way to black market research

This was a talk that changed my life as a young adult. Misha Glenny is a journalist know for his work on criminal networks and organizations. I saw this talk and was hooked, shifting my research focus from immigration to black markets and organized crime. I purchased his book McMafia at TEDGlobal and devoured it.

I became fascinated with the different ways people organize and problem solve in the market, when they are either blocked from entering the traditional workforce, cannot build a business within the legal structure, or need to participate in black markets, rather than formal markets, for other reasons.

I gave a talk at the University session of TEDGlobal 2014 in Rio and Misha was in the audience. When I saw him later at the conference and he told me I had done a good job, it was like having a personal hero pat me on the back. (I gave a similar talk later that year at TEDxMunich)

I am constantly inspired by Misha’s research methods and writing style, and was so grateful to find his work at that point in my life. It helped me build my structure for study in University and beyond. That’s a powerful talk!

My Mother, The Explorer.

My mother is an explorer.

Not of the hiking boots and rain-soaked maps–sort. Her adventures sought truth beyond what was directly stated.

A few years ago, I was writing my thesis, and she was completing her dissertation in parallel. We both wrote about Colombia, though I wrote about drug cartels and how they invested in political campaigns, whereas she focused on twentieth-century and contemporary Colombian artists and how they documented the violence of the drug wars.

We found that writing about Mexico, where I was born and she had lived for a quarter of her life, was too raw, too close to memories we weren’t ready to talk about, so we shifted our focus to Colombia.

She asked, “How do you sit down and focus? Help me remember what it’s like to be a student.”

I offered some notes on my study habits.

I asked, “Can I borrow your books from the artists?” Sometimes, they offered a perspective closer to the truth. She’d challenge me to go beyond the text.

We explored truth together.

I finished my thesis and graduated from Yale. A year later, she submitted her PhD dissertation to Harvard. Mine was to satisfy my burning questions about black markets in Latin America, an important step towards embracing myself wholeheartedly as an explorer of truth (a researcher). Hers was a project of love and defiance that shows it is never too late to chase your dreams.

Now, a few years after college, my mentors remind me that I should start my PhD now, if I want to sample all that life has to offer. They tell me the investment of my time and energy into a PhD has to happen now, if I want to have a family and a career. I left academia to try my hand at research inside industry, first for a think tank and then TED, and to try pursuing other people’s questions.

Sometimes, I am consumed by anxiety. And just when I wonder if my window of opportunity to return to my questions is closing, I remember my mother’s journey, and how she fearlessly pursued her degree while working and caring for her children. It would take fourteen years from start to finish for her to complete her PhD. It was interrupted with adventure: she left her program when she moved to Mexico City, had children, worked as an art critic, and taught art history, before she eventually returned to her PhD.

Timelines for the questions we pursue, she taught me, can be adapted, and sometimes a researcher requires different types of personal growth to reach her fullest potential.

My Mom is an explorer. My path (and my timeline) is my own to determine. With her as an example, I embrace my adventures.

Diana Enriquez is by day TED’s Content Researcher, and by night an informal economist. She loves experiment design, trying to answer difficult questions, unusual businesses, and the informal economy. She grew up in Mexico City and Boston and now lives in Brooklyn. 

This was originally published as an essay in a collection of essays here.