An Intersectional Labor Movement Must Resist “Colorblind” Approaches to Organizing
We must explicitly reject “melting pot” approaches to class solidarity.
“The ‘new labor energy’ must do more than acknowledge that intersectional struggles exist in order to radically confront intra-group conflicts.”
At a forum sponsored by Boston Review, Sarita Gupta, Stephen Lerner and Joseph A. McCartin presented a paper titled, “Why the Labor Movement has Failed – And How to Fix it.” The labor movement, they wrote, needs to be redefined “as being for the ‘common good,’ which means going beyond what most unions traditionally organize and bargain about.” Rutgers University assistant professor Tamara Lee submitted this response.
It is difficult to disagree with Gupta, Lerner, and McCartin that “traditional worker organizing has failed on every level,” or that the labor movement could and should adopt approaches for more inclusive bargaining. Indeed, anyone interested in union revitalization should be encouraged by worker participation in the successes of contemporary campaigns for broader social justice—from the reverberating work of Occupy Wall Street to the Fight for $15 movement, the Women’s March on Washington, #MeToo, and the Movement for Black Lives, not to mention the “Bargaining for the Common Good” strategies the authors describe in detail. All have helped to expand the traditional union and bargaining focus on wages, hours, and working conditions into a larger conversation with community allies about the full meaning of economic justice.
“We must not slide into a call to make labor great again without a critical race and intersectional analysis.”
Given the vitality of these movements, I share much of the authors’ optimism: we have a unique opportunity now to engage workers in campaigns that look beyond the worksite itself to broader equity-based collective bargaining.
I part ways, however, regarding their apparent acceptance of traditional, primarily class-based solidarity frames, and I bristle at nostalgia for a golden age of labor past. We must not slide into a call to make labor great again without a critical race and intersectional analysis.
Unions have unfortunate but real and enduring historical legacies of being on the wrong side of justice for marginalized identity groups. To truly bend the arc of the economic universe toward justice, we must explicitly reject “melting pot” approaches to class solidarity, radically confront colorblindness in our strategic organizing frameworks, and ensure identity-consciousness in our conceptualizations of justice. A transformational reimagining of the labor movement’s goals must acknowledge that an injury to one is not felt the same by all. Discrimination and inequity—both inside and outside the labor movement—are amplified at the intersections of workers’ social identities, including their race, gender, sexual orientation, and migrant status. This fact should be a centerpiece of labor organizing, not an afterthought.
“An injury to one is not felt the same by all.”
This has long been a failure of U.S. liberation and labor movements—a point made again and again in critiques leveled by activists and scholars from within intersectional identity groups. As the Combahee River Collective—a renowned group of radical black, queer feminist scholar-activists named after a resistance action led by Harriet Tubman in 1863—made clear in its 1977 statement:
“This may seem so obvious as to sound simplistic, but it is apparent that no other ostensibly progressive movement has ever considered our specific oppression as a priority or worked seriously for the ending of that oppression. . . .
“We need to articulate the real class situation of persons who are not merely raceless, sexless workers, but for whom racial and sexual oppression are significant determinants in their working/economic lives.”
Contrary to the optimistic story Gupta, Lerner, and McCartin tell, which surprisingly does not once use the words “racist” or “sexist,” the “real class situation” of workers with marginalized identities is almost always a story of exclusion rather than inclusion—not just from workplaces, but also from efforts to reform them. In some of our recent research on supra-union and intersectional worker organizing in the low-wage restaurant industry, Maite Tapia, Mikhail Filipovitch, and I recall that
“during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, with some important exceptions, most unions remained on the sidelines and did not participate in the racial justice movements for labor justice, but rather became stuck in a form of union organizing built around class identity to the exclusion of other worker interests.”
Such legacies have consequences for contemporary mobilization. New approaches that claim the banner of intersectionality—a concept grounded in critical race theory, with a basic tenet requiring race-conscious approaches to social justice—must commit to the hard and explicit work of challenging colorblind, class-centered organizing frameworks, and to replacing them with new solidarities and collective visions that don’t erase intra-class inequity.
“The ‘real class situation’ of workers with marginalized identities is almost always a story of exclusion rather than inclusion.”
Although Gupta, Lerner, and McCartin gesture in passing to “efforts to win justice for workers across lines of gender, race, and citizenship status,” they do not make identity-conscious strategic organizing a centerpiece of their analysis.Instead they state, more confidently than I can as a black queer feminist, that
“the attention that activists have given to the intersectional nature of most struggles for justice has diminished the conflicts that once pitted advocates of a universalistic, majoritarian left against those who feared that the voices of minorities and the excluded would be marginalized in such a movement.”
I have doubts. The errors of the past cannot be so easily dismissed, ignored, or willed away: it takes serious and systematic work to root them out. The “new labor energy” must do more than acknowledge that intersectional struggles exist in order to radically confront the intra-group conflictsthat have sown movement fragmentation in the past.
Consider, for example, that the authors don’t explain in any detail exactly how “attention” to intersectionality has in fact “diminished” those old conflicts. And while they note, correctly, that these new campaigns have begun to accommodate more people at the bargaining table, as well as to expand the processes and purposes of strategic organizing, they leave several questions left unanswered. How has the movement avoided—and how can it go on avoiding—tokenism? How can it ensure actual power and leadership by women and people of color? Exactly what mechanisms are in place to ensure that the future of the movement has a shared and inclusive definition of justice that underlies broad, community-based campaigns?
“Gupta, Lerner, and McCartin do not make identity-conscious strategic organizing a centerpiece of their analysis.”
A successful intersectional labor movement must not only move away from New Deal–era approaches, as Gupta, Lerner, and McCartin suggest. It must also resist wistfulness for an era of traditional colorblind organizing that underscored what they eulogize as the “vibrancy that characterized U.S. labor struggles in the era before the twentieth-century institutionalization of unions and traditional collective bargaining.” While the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association’s resistance to “wage slavery” may recall for some a time when “unions of the past had concerned themselves not merely with wages and hours of their members but with a defense of the common good,” for others it merely provides more evidence of a movement that appealed to notions of “justice” while turning a blind eye to the fact that black women remained in chattel slavery and were barred from wages in most parts of the country.
Such colorblind nostalgia for a time when justice for white women was equated with justice for all women suggests to me that we are not as close to “radically reimagining and redefining” traditional approaches to worker organizing as we think we are. To my mind, to be truly transformational in the pursuit of social justice during this #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter, #NoBansNoWalls era—a time when the public is increasingly woke to the relationship between systemic economic stratification and identity-based marginalization—the labor movement must correct its traditionally class-centered approaches to organizing for the common good that erase salient worker identities. Failing to do so may leave many workers waiting centuries more for social justice to trickle down within and outside the traditional labor movement.
Tamara Lee is Assistant Professor in the School of Management and Labor Relations at Rutgers University. Her academic research focuses on the popular participation of workers in macro-level political and economic reform in Cuba and the United States. She also studies the political practice of workers under the National Labor Relations Act, the intersection of labor and racial justice, cross-movement solidarity building, and the impact of radical adult education on workplace democracy.
This article previously appeared in Boston Review.
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