Some Things I Have Learned in Two Years of Labor Organizing


Abolition in Practice?

Volume 9, Issue 03
December 1, 2023

I began organizing at Yale for the graduate worker union when I first started in the PhD program here in the fall of 2021. It has been an auspicious time to be involved with the Local 33 movement to say the least. In those two short years—after 30 years of continuous labor agitation—we collectively built a massive, inter-school movement, won the election in a landslide, and are now well on our way to bargaining a first contract. As we wind down this eventful year, I thought I’d take this last column as an opportunity to reflect on the lessons I carry forward from my experience as an organizer.

To be clear, I am by no means an expert—though I am a member of the bargaining committee, my involvement in the organizing infrastructure has largely felt like happenstance, finding myself in the right place at the right time. In turn, the observations I compile below are not profound. They are largely practical lessons drawn from the everyday encounters of organizing.

Space matters.
This is perhaps a controversial opinion, but remote work tends to benefit the employer more than the worker—at least in the context of labor organizing. Conviviality amongst colleagues is crucial to labor solidarity. The workplace may seem the dominion of the surveillant employer, but in sharing space we cumulatively develop essential capacities that are at the heart of what it means to be in common: to care and be cared for, trust and be trusted in, rely and be relied upon. After all, “comrade” is an etymological derivation of camarada—Spanish for roommate. I would certainly attest that the strength of our organizing here at YSOA is a direct result of the culture of communality continually fostered through proximity.

Tired workers become resigned workers.
At the same time, this constant proximity comes at a cost. It’s no grand epiphany to state that architectural labor is deeply exploitative—not only in the bare economics of compensation, but also in the disproportionate commitment of time demanded of workers. As all of you know, this begins in architecture’s academic culture. This culture of laboring together that binds us as a community is the very same culture that collectively commits us to a practice of aspirational self-exploitation. Not only does this academic culture work to employers’ benefit by inculcating a culture of hard work with minimal return, but it also renders us, simply put, exhausted. It is November. I am tired. You, dear MArch student or design firm employee, are probably more tired. And labor organizing, like all work, is demanding. What time does a tired worker have to attend to yet more demanding work?

Process is politics.
Indeed, there are no short-cuts to organizing—it is slow and laborious, and fraught with dissensus. Much of this can, in my opinion, be ascribed to fear: a fear of employer retaliation, or perhaps a fear of uncharted territory, especially in a profession such as ours with little to no history of established pathways or precedents for unionization. However, dismissing these fears outright is counterproductive. Belief in labor power as a defense against such fears begins with trust in our peers and ourselves as a reliable network of care. This mutualistic trust is built through dialogue and care—a practice of organizing must prioritize care-in-process as an a priori condition to building a union that takes care of its workers.

It should be nourishing.
So we are tired workers on the one hand, while on the other, organizing a union demands yet more energy and care. This is a recipe for burn-out, and I have certainly been there many times in the last two years. How do we build a practice of organizing that is as restorative as it is constructive? I think often of food, in this respect—not simply in terms of consumption, but in an expanded sense of nourishment. As the artist Ivana Franke writes, “If we think about food as a means for providing us with energy for living, it seems obvious that it does not end with the substances we eat. We also consume and digest impressions.”1 Practices of communal care are about how we nourish ourselves and one another through joyful acts of sharing—sharing space, sharing burdens, sharing knowledge, and indeed, sharing food. This is the practice of companionship. Companion, compañerx, and company all share the same etymological origin: com panis, Latin for “with bread.” In other words, our companions are those with whom we break bread, and in breaking bread, we imagine joyful alternatives to a capitalist system of labor, production, and ownership. As the artist Toni Cade Bambara has said, “As a cultural worker, who belongs to an oppressed people, my job is to make revolution irresistible.”2 Indeed, building labor solidarity is often challenging, daunting work, and how we approach it, with a generous, nourishing disposition, is essential to rendering it contagious across the profession.

  1. Ivana Franke, “How Does It Feel to Eat Blue?” in Studio Olafur Eliasson: The Kitchen, ed. Olafur Eliasson (New York: Phaidon Press, 2016), 337. ↩︎
  2. Toni Cade Bambara, Conversations with Toni Cade Bambara (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2012), ix. ↩︎