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How Can We Organize in Ways That Challenge Boundaries and Defy Exclusion?

Our organizing must be grounded in — not bounded by — local conditions, argues Ruth Wilson Gilmore.

Part of the Series

Organizing is always constrained by recognition: How do people come to actively identify in and act through a group such that its collective end surpasses reification of characteristics (e.g., identity politics) or protection of a fixed set of interests (e.g., corporatist politics) and, instead, extends toward an evolving, purposeful social movement (e.g., class politics)?[76] This question has particular importance when it comes to the age-old puzzle of organizing unorganized US workers, especially when the fundamental criterion for identification is not limited by a worksite or occupational category. US labor history is dominated by worksite-and occupational-movement building, with group boundaries established by employers or by skills. These boundaries, of course, negatively organize — and even disorganize — the excluded because US worksites and occupations are historically segregated by both gender and race.[77]

In a few instances, US labor movements have broadened their practices by engaging in a class rather than corporatist approach. Whereas most such efforts resulted in failure — crushed by the capitalist state’s coercive and ideological apparatuses — some attempts along this way produced surprising results.[78] When the Communist Party attempted to organize workers in the relatively new steel district of Birmingham, Alabama during the 1930s, it ran into a sturdy wall of racism that prevented the CPUSA from forging a movement in which whites could recognize themselves and Black people as equally exploited workers rather than as properly unequal Americans. However, the organizers who traveled the urban mills and rural mines seeking out industrial laborers discovered an unanticipated audience for their arguments among predominately Black sharecroppers. The Sharecroppers’ Union adapted the CP analysis to their own precarious conditions, and the group grew rapidly, forming a network of cells in urban and rural locations throughout the region. One needed neither to be a sharecropper, nor employed, nor Black to participate in the union. Upwards of six thousand millworkers and miners, in addition to dispossessed farmers (busy or idle), found common cause in a social movement through their understanding of their collective “equality” — which was, at that time, their individual interchangeability and disposability on northern Alabama’s agricultural and industrial production platforms.[79] State forces eventually crushed the movement, yet the submerged remnants of the union, according to its indigenous leadership, formed the already-existing regional foundation for intra-wartime organizing and postwar anti-racist activism.[80]

In the current period, Justice for Janitors (JfJ) is an innovative labor movement in which neither worksite nor occupation has served as a sufficient organizational structure in the low-wage service industry. Learning from history, JfJ’s strategy is to exploit the otherwise inhibiting features of the labor market by pursuing a “geographical” approach to organization.[81] In the massive layoffs of the late 1970s and early 1980s, firms broke janitorial unions that African Americans and others had painstakingly built under the aegis of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) during and after World War II.[82] Industry subcontracted maintenance and, thereby, negated labor’s hard-won worksite-by- worksite agreements.

The ensuing proliferation of small, easily reorganized janitorial service contractors has made actual employers moving targets and, thus, rendered traditional forms of wage bargaining impossible to carry out and enforce.[83] Further, janitors working under the new arrangements, often at less than minimum wage, are not the same people who fought for wages up to ten dollars or more per hour by 1980.[84] Thus, in addition to pressing employers for contracts, JfJ’s solution is to organize both the actual market for janitorial services and the potential labor market for janitors. This areal approach limits employers’ flexibility because it is their actual and potential clients who agree to do business only with unionized contractors. The solution also requires that labor organizing be community organizing as well, as was the case with the CPUSA’s work in 1930s greater-Birmingham. To appeal to former janitors in target areas and to potential janitors wherever they may be, JfJ proposes a bottom-up strategy to develop comprehensive regional plans that include but are not reducible to setting minimal standards for wages that employed individuals (janitors or not) can expect to pull down.[85]

The divisions between home and work, private and public, on the stage of capitalist culture constitute for many the normative limits to particular kinds of conflict. When the political dimensions of breaches in those limits become apparent in crises, new possibilities for social movements unfold. As we have seen, Black working-class women politicized the material and ideological distance between their paid and unwaged labor by traversing the streets. More recently, janitors around the US have taken their clandestine exploitation public on a number of fronts, combining community-based organizing with front-line, public sphere militancy led by immigrants who gained experience as oppositional subjects of, for example, Salvadoran state terrorism.[86]

In Argentina, under the fascist military government (1977– 1983) the Madres of the Plaza de Mayo defied the expectation that women should not meddle in affairs of the state — which is to say the male, or public, sphere — by organizing on the basis of a simple and culturally indisputable claim that mothers ought to know where their children are. The fascists’ nightly raids to kidnap teenage and adult children, most of whom were never seen again, effectively coerced neighbors, who had not yet been touched, to avert their eyes and keep their mouths closed. However, a cadre of mothers, who first encountered each other in the interstices of the terrorist state — waiting rooms, courtrooms, and the information desks of jails and detention centers — eventually took their quest into the Plaza de Mayo. There, with the eyes of the nation and eventually the world on them, they demanded both the return of their disappeared and the identification and punishment of those who had perpetrated the terror. The mothers dressed for recognition, wearing head scarves made of diapers on which each had written or embroidered the name(s) of her disappeared.[87]

The Madres’ fundamental position, echoing and echoed by similar movements in such places as South Africa, Palestine, and El Salvador, was and is that children are not alienable.[88] In order to make this position politically material in the face of continuous terror, the Madres permanently drew back the curtain between private and public, making “maternal” activism on behalf of children a daily job conducted as openly and methodically as possible. The Madres’ persistence, both before and after the official admission that the children had died horribly, transformed the passion of individual grief into the politics of collective opposition. Betrayed in the early years by state and church officials alike, by military, police, bureaucrats, and priests, the Madres learned to suspect institutions as well as individuals, and as their analysis became enriched by experience, they situated their disappeared in the context of political-economic crisis. Thus, when a re-democratized Argentina emerged, they did not return to hearth and home but rather expanded their political horizons. Currently [1999], their politics focus on the effects of the country’s structural adjustment program, which has widened and deepened poverty and reduced opportunities for young people.[89]

As we have seen, Mothers ROC does its work in a political-economic climate as hostile, and often as bloody, as that which formed each group we have briefly examined. The ROC’s solutions to the problems constituting the daily struggle to reclaim their children draw from the structural features of radical self-help, from the strategies of organizing on every platform where conflict is enacted, and from the argument that mothers should extend their techniques as mothers beyond the veil of traditional domestic spheres. In a word, they enact the “consciencization” of motherhood.[90] The solutions are grounded in, but not bounded by, local conditions. Indeed, the organicism of Mothers ROC has to do precisely with its attention to the specific sites and scales of power that produce prison geographies and to the ways those sites and scales might be exploited for oppositional ends.

Conclusion: From the Crisis of Place to the Politics of Space

A small, poor, multiracial group of working-class people, mostly prisoners’ mothers, mobilize in the interstices of the politically abandoned, heavily policed, declining welfare state. They come forward, in the first instance, because they will not let their children go. They stay forward, in the spaces created by intensified imprisonment of their loved ones, because they encounter many mothers and others in the same locations eager to join in the reclamation project. And they push further, because from those breaches they can see, and try to occupy, positions from which to collectively challenge the individualized involuntary migration of urban “surplus population” into rural prisons.

“Arrest is the political art of individualizing disorder.”[91] Again and again, such individualization produces fragmentation rather than connection for the millions arrested in the US each year, as each person and household, dealing with each arrest, must figure out how to undo the detention — which appears to be nothing more than a highly rationalized confrontation between the individual and the state. The larger disorder is then reified in the typologies of wrongdoing such as gang activity; alternatively, the larger disorder is mystified as “crime,” which, like unemployment, is alleged to have a “natural” if changing rate in a social formation.[92] ROCers gradually but decisively refuse both the individualized nature of their persons’ arrests and the “naturalness” of crime, of poverty, of the power of the state.[93] They arrive at their critique through action. Action crucially includes the difficult work of identification — which entails production, not discovery, of a “suture or positioning.”[94] Through the socially and spatially complex processes of identification that are attentive to racial, class, and gender specificities as well as commonalities, the ROCers transform themselves and the external world.


76. Gramsci, Selections; Hall, “Gramsci’s Relevance,” and “Cultural Identity and Diaspora,” in Jonathan Rutherford (ed.), Identity: Community, Culture and Difference, London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1990; Doracie Zoleta-Nantes, personal conversation with author, 1995.

77. Dorothy Sue Cobble, “Making Postindustrial Unionism Possible,” in S. Friedman et al. (eds), Restoring the Promise of American Labor Law, Ithaca, NY: ILR Press, 1994, 285–302, and Dishing it Out: Waitresses and Their Unions in the Twentieth Century, Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1991; Paul Johnston, Success While Others Fail: Social Movement Unionism and the Public Workplace, New York: ILR Press, 1994; Ruth Milkman, Gender at Work, Champaign-Urbana IL: University of Illinois Press, 1987; David Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class, New York: Verso, 1991; Howard Wial, “The Emerging Organizational Structure of Unionism in Low-Wage Services,” Rutgers Law Review 45 (1993): 671 738; Woods, Development Arrested.

78. Melvyn Dubofsky, We Shall Be All: A History of the IWW, Champaign-Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1969; Phillip Foner, “The IWW and the Negro Worker,” Journal of Negro History (1970): 45–64; Wial, “The Emerging Organizational Structure of Unionism in Low-Wage Services.”

79. In the United States, the word “equality” seems often to connote an upward leveling. In The Arcane of Reproduction, Fortunati helpfully points out that other forms of “equality” (e.g., slavery) have analytical weight that requires political and organizational attention.

80. C. L. R. James et al., Fighting Racism in World War Two, New York: Monad Press, 1980; Robin D. G. Kelley, Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression, Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1990; Nell Painter, The Narrative of Hosea Hudson, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979.

81. Johnston, Success While Others Fail; Wial, “The Emerging Organizational Structure of Unionism in Low-Wage Services.”

82. See James et al., Fighting Racism.

83. The companies that now hire janitors can disappear overnight, thanks to no fixed capital or other constraints holding them in place. Therefore, labor lacks the leverage it had when, for example, janitors negotiated contracts directly with the former employers (owners of hotels, restaurants, office buildings, factories, and so forth) who are now clients.

84. In 1980 dollars.

85. Eric Parker and Joel Rodgers, The Wisconsin Regional Training Partnership, 1995 (manuscript in author’s possession); Wial, “The Emerging Organizational Structure of Unionism in Low-Wage Services”; see also Elizabeth Faue, Community of Suffering and Struggle: Women, Men and the Labor Movement in Minneapolis, 1915–1945, Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1990, and Woods, Development Arrested. According to a presentation given by a JfJ organizing committee in Los Angeles in March 1993, organizing has, in some cases, stretched back to immigrant janitors’ towns of origin in Mexico and El Salvador. Insofar as it is common for people from a particular region to migrate to both the same area and labor-market niche as their friends and families who precede them, JfJ started to work backward along the migratory path in an attempt to incorporate the wider-than- daily labor market into the movement’s sphere of influence. During this same presentation, when challenged by a Sandinista cadre who asked an apparently simple question (“What became of the people who used to be janitors?”), JfJ acknowledged their organizing had not extended to the former workers. JfJ pledged to expand its Southern California scope of activity and reach out to former janitors in the community who are, as noted above, mostly African Americans in a project that might well revive submerged knowledges from earlier labor and anti-racist struggles.

86. Laura Pulido, “The Geography of Militant Labor Organizing in Los Angeles,” Paper delivered at the meetings of the Association for Economic and Social Analysis, December 7, 1996, University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

87. Martin Anderson, Dossier Secreto: Argentina’s Desaparecidos and the Myth of the “Dirty War.Boulder, CO: Westview, 1993; Marguerite Guzman Bouvard, Revolutionizing Motherhood: The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, Inc., 1994; Nora Amelia Femenia, “Argentina’s Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo: The Mourning Process from Junta to Democracy,” Feminist Studies 13.1 (1987): 9–18; Jo Fisher, Mothers of the Disappeared, Boston: South End Press, 1989; Matilde Mellibovsky, Circle of Love Over Death: The Story of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, Willimantic, CT: Curbstone Press, 1997; Emma Sepúlveda (ed.), We, Chile: Personal Testimonies of the Chilean Arpilleristas, Falls Church, VA: Azul Editions, 1996.

88. Barbara Harlow, Barred: Women, Writing and Political Detention, Hanover: Wesleyan University Press/University Press of New England, 1992; Maria Teresa Tula, Hear My Testimony, Boston: South End Press, 1994.

89. Fisher, Mothers of the Disappeared; Calvin Sims, “The Rock, Unyielding, of the Plaza de Mayo,” New York Times, March 2, 1996, 4.

90. Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, New York: Seabury, 1970.

91. Allen Feldman, Formations of Violence, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991, 109.

92. See, for examples, Peter W. Greenwood et al., Three Strikes and You’re Out; James Q. Wilson and Richard Herrnstein, Crime and Human Nature, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985.

93. See also David Anderson, Crime and the Politics of Hysteria, New York: Times Books, 1995; Charles Derber, The Wilding of America: How Greed and Violence are Eroding our Nation’s Character, New York: St. Martins, 1996; Carol Stabile, “Media’s Crime Wave: Legitimating the Prison Industrial Complex.” Paper delivered at Behind Bars: Prisons and Communities in the United States, George Mason University, 1996.

94. Hall, “Cultural Identity and Diaspora”; see also Peter Jackson, “Changing Ourselves: A Geography of Position,” in R. J. Johnston (ed.), The Challenge for Geography, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1993, 198–214.

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