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.

On Father’s Day

My father taught me to:

Be Brave.

Be Passionate.

Act with love.

In bravery, I learned to ask important questions and not accept “no,” so much as “not right now.” It’s a challenge. We work and we prove, or we accept that sometimes the direction we started in… is less effective than a new one.

In passion, I learned to fan the flames that drive me and fuel my hope. I create a definition for myself of a life worth living. We fight for justice.

In love, we build community through kindness. If trust is the fabric that brings communities together, creates economic exchange and growth, and allows us to live in lower stress environments where we are each able to live as we choose to live… trust cannot exist without the belief that those around you are “coming from a good place.” Be part of that social fabric. Be kind.

Happy Father’s Day!

Dear Master Hudak

I learned a few weeks ago that the Master of Saybrook College at Yale (my residential college when I was a student) died on a Wednesday night. The news was passed along through a support group that my class in Saybrook had formed to coordinate sending him a gift from all of us while he was in his final days in the hospital.

The rumors on the internet had declared him “dead” as early as last week. We knew from his family that he was still hanging on until this week, but it was really interesting to see the communities that loved him outside of Yale (the Hacker community, programmers, computer science majors, etc.) talk about him.

He was so amazing that is was celebrated through the words of talented writers and students in the pages of the newspaper from the university that he loved dearly… and was one of the top 5 hits on a major hacker discussion board, because he played a major role in developing Haskell.

To me, Master Hudak was Saybrook’s father figure. For as long as I had known him, he was fighting cancer. When I would see him in the evenings he hosted Master’s teas or events for Seniors, like my Mellon Forum on Colombia Cartels, he always had a tired, but very warm smile.

I remember talking to him years earlier when I felt really lost in the economics department. My view of the world was so far from the discussion topics and theories we discussed in my econ classes… and they showed very very little interest in the markets and worlds I wanted to explore. He told me to follow my dreams and pointed me towards funding that allowed me to do my field work and research for all four years of college.

Later, he sat in the front row during my talk at the senior Mellon Forums and took it all in stride, knowing how much it had taken me to get to this point with my research. And that meant a lot.

He was clearly very proud of the community that he had built and supported within Saybrook — and rightly so, he was very much loved by all of us.

It takes me time to process this type of information. Usually, I hear it and feel nothing. And then, it seeps into me slowly and I feel it. While I was walking home yesterday, I felt it as a series of memories slowly replaying in my head. Snapshots of my freshman year through the senior dinner, when he came to support me when I was nominated for the Nakanishi Prize, and later when he handed me my diploma. By the time the cycle of images was done moving through my imagination… I felt it in a wave of overwhelming sadness.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the voice we leave behind when we write or produce art (or in Master Hudak’s case, an original coding language). One of my next longer entries will be about managing memories… and the filters our loved ones use to explain the person they loved and knew us to be (sometimes, these views of a person might be in conflict). I’ve been exploring this theme deeply in my own work and memories. Looking forward to sharing it with you. But for now, Rest in Peace, Master Hudak.

Why Women Worry About Street Harassment (And Other Language Faux-Pas)

When I was a sophomore in college, I remember walking back from the library at 2am in the dark, clutching my laptop and scurrying as fast as possible back to my dorm.

I didn’t like walking alone in the dark.

This was all made worse when I heard loud clanging sounds and male voices chanting in unison:

“MY NAME IS JACK

I’M A NECROPHELIAC

I FUCK DEAD WOMEN

AND FILL THEM WITH MY SEMEN.”

I started running until I got to the gates of my college, with the door firmly shut behind me, I paused and felt my blood pounding in my ears.

I’m 5’6”. There isn’t a whole lot I can do if an entire mob of football players decides they want to chase me down. This was a reality I was well aware of while I was standing there taking in my surroundings.

I run through a list every single time I stand at my door about to leave my apartment:

  • Do I have my house keys?
  • Is my phone charged enough to last me a few hours if I need to make any emergency calls/find my way home?
  • Do I have my wallet?
  • Do I have enough cash for a cab if I need to get home and something happens?
  • Is my dress too short, am I drawing too much unwanted attention to myself?
  • Where am I going? How will I get there? How will I get home?
  • Who should I tell where I am going in case something happens to me?
  • Is it ok for me to go to [This Location] totally alone? Should I call someone?
  • If I need to run, could I run for a while in this pair of shoes?

If I was still working in Mexico or on site in some of the places I study, this list gets a lot longer. Before I leave in the morning, I assess what risks I could encounter that day and try to build a list of options for myself to make sure I am prepared to meet my challenges for that day. Because if the going gets really rough, my options might end up being fairly limited.

That night I listened to a group of men, many of them much larger than me, chanting:

“NO MEANS YES

AND YES MEANS ANAL.”

As part of an initiation routine for their frat, meaning, freshman boys were encouraged to chant about abusing dead women, felt like what I would have labeled “a worst-case scenario” in my morning planning.

Separately, the song is completely vile in every possible way. Who comes up with this garbage?

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I wrote this post because a number of my male friends through the years have asked me why programs like Hollaback are relevant. Why women don’t like to be cat called. Why we get offended sometimes. They mean well, I know they do, so I often explain this experience of constantly wondering how you are going to get home and if someone has been watching you for too long. How we think through our options to escape and how making a single wrong decision could end very badly for us.

For me, this night in New Haven was one of many in my life where we remember that societal expectations and “manners” are abstract concepts that people opt into. They are not enforced by nature, but by communities. Without mutual respect inside of a community, they cease to exist and I am expected to compete for my own survival.

When I explain it in these terms, my male friends are often the first ones to respond with “not cool” to the guy who yells something at me when I walk by. They start to understand where I am coming from when I talk through my morning checklist and what I worry about when I am weighing my options in risky situations.

I think it would be amazing if I could walk down streets in major cities and know that I was not going to hear someone lean out the window of a car and offer me a list of “dirty things I’d like to do to you” or comment on my ass when I walk by. So, maybe it starts with you.

Check out what Hollaback is up to in your city. It’s an issue with deep roots, but it’s a worthwhile one.