Through studying the history of organizing and reflecting on my own experiences trying to organize, I became a Leftist. What I learned was that Leftists had a history, a beautiful, powerful history, of building movements. They were the fiercest fighters in people’s freedom movements. I learned that Leftists see as their task to build beyond single issues and challenge all systems of oppression. Leftists fight racism and patriarchy as central to class struggle whether on the job or in communities, locally or globally. My choice to become a Leftist, meant that I came to believe that people around me, and around the world, are being oppressed by a system. I came to believe that this system needs to be fundamentally changed, so we can live in a different type of world.
Mise-en-Place: Inheriting the debate, setting the stage
In the U.S. in the 1970s, Leftists in our social movements were heavily influenced by the Marxist-Leninist politics of the Russian Revolution and Third-World Revolutionary movements in China and Cuba, and they focused on building large working-class organizations. These movements tended to be strong on their analysis of the objective conditions facing us as a result of capitalism, but weak on their analysis and practice of gender liberation. Simultaneously, women’s and gay liberation movements, though they fought for powerful cultural and political changes, were criticized for being too disproportionately white and not rooted in the working class. These were both critical influential tendencies, with significant overlap and good people who waged collective struggle and won material gains for the people. Unfortunately, however, the tension between them and the weaknesses of both continue to plague our movements, and I especially want to reflect on how this affects young radicals and our organizing.
My generation has responded to this history and tension with a thought trend that I’ll call postmodern intersectionality. It is characterized by an emphasis on the subjective experiences of individuals, a race and gender analysis that raises up difference over universality, and the importance of individual transformation and emotional safe space. It has a strong analysis of the roles that imperialism, ecological destruction, gender oppression and national oppression play in people’s lives. I think that people politicized by this thought trend try to consistently raise the need for care work, inclusive decision-making processes, and individual transformation, but do not simultaneously address the need to connect individual choices to collective action, and the need to build power towards fundamental social change. Because this trend has dominated Left thinking in academia, student organizing and social justice non-profit organizing, we do not have enough young radicals becoming organizers, prioritizing the need to wage collective struggle, and figuring out how to incorporate the important insights of postmodern intersectionality and gender liberation struggles into the work of building and shaping large, fighting, working-class organizations.
Instead, I’ve seen many of my peers de-prioritize thinking strategically about their work, not creating long-term plans to win, because centering strategy is associated with the mistakes of Left movements past, unloving and masculine. I’ve seen this pattern encourage many small-scale, “pure” projects, at the expense of figuring out how to build large-scale fighting organizations - which we also need if we are to make large-scale impact! I’ve seen postmodernism’s identification of language as a site of struggle confuse people; folks seem to think that just raising correct ideas (“calling someone out”) can make change, rather than the slow work of transforming consciousness through engaging people in collective action. I know that we have the collective knowledge and ability to fundamentally change society, and I raise these concerns from a place of long-term commitment and love for my people, who are trying to figure it out.
I believe we need to correct the mistakes of postmodern intersectionality if we want our movements to thrive. I want to argue instead for a historical materialist intersectionality, an understanding of the intersections of oppression that is rooted in the need to organize, build collective power, and challenge the structures of oppression. I am introducing this framework out of my own struggle, not only to understand my personal experiences, but to build an organizing practice that incorporates the best insights from different movements.
Clocking in: my path to union hotel work
I am a 27 year old, straight-identified white woman who grew up in a comfortable working-class Jewish home in Northeast Philadelphia. My parents were both union members who worked in the Philadelphia Public School system. I went to public school, Northeast High, and had to go to the college that gave me the most scholarship money, Ursinus College. Growing up in this environment, I saw discrimination towards my Black (American born), Asian and Puerto Rican friends and immigrant friends from Russia, the Ivory Coast, and China. I experienced sexism while struggling with my own identity and sense of self as a woman, and I saw the effects of lack of funding and resources in my school and city. When I got to college I had seen the interconnectedness of racism, sexism, capitalism, and US imperialism, so when I became politicized by postmodern intersectionality I felt like it resonated with my experiences.
I came up against some of the strengths and weaknesses of postmodern intersectionality while doing campus organizing as part of United Students Against Sweatshops campaigns. This organizing taught me a lot, and I saw the power of an organizing campaign to win a concrete victory. In USAS, we valued postmodern intersectionality in the way we created caucus spaces and identified privilege and oppression as elements shaping our internal dynamic and work together. However, we failed to tie that insight about intersecting oppressions into our organizing campaign or programmatic work. We were never able to tackle the question of how we integrate the two, because as they existed they were in fact incompatible. Our thinking about oppression was individualized and only shaped the way we handled internal dynamics. We stopped there, and never conceptualized intersectionality as a framework we could use to understand the system as a whole, beyond our individual life experiences.
After I graduated college, I started doing workplace union organizing by getting a job at a hotel. I wanted to apply what I had learned about postmodern intersectionality to my organizing practice, and as in my experiences growing up in Philly, at the hotel I was confronted with the undeniable interconnectedness of race, gender and class. I tried to use postmodern intersectionality in my organizing and it literally didn’t work. I quickly realized that if I wanted to be successful organizing my hotel, where the only thing we all had in common was having the job, I needed to change my approach.
Short-changed: Becoming an Organizer
Early on in my work, I made mistakes because I was relying on the power of moral arguments instead of organizing a base and acting collectively. I called out a well-liked chef (manager), who routinely would violate our contract by working as a cook on the line while my coworkers were sitting at home with no hours, no work. On principle, I called him out one day for violating our union contract, because he unnecessarily came out onto the floor and started to do my job, taking orders from my tables without my permission. I thought it would turn out well because it was so clear to me that I was in the right, and I was proud of myself for having the courage to stand up to him. He was so pissed and it stirred up much conversation. My pride was short-lived, because soon, many of my coworkers who I had been cool with before were now cold, and thought I was wrong. The chef had been successful in organizing my coworkers against me, even though on principle, he was in the wrong. I realized then that I needed to change my approach, pick my fights more strategically, and organize a base before taking a stand. The outcome wasn't determined by right and wrong, it was determined by the balance of power, and I needed to figure out how to build power.
With a heightened consciousness of the need to build power and not just pick fights on principle, I became determined to figure out the material and strategic implications of our workplace dynamics for our organizing, including the interconnectedness of race, class and gender. At the hotel, a racialized and gendered division of labor structurally poses people against each other based on the jobs we hold. Generally Black and immigrant women (Puerto-Rican, Mexican, Filipino, Albanian, Ukrainian, Liberian) are in housekeeping, quantifiably the most back-breaking, lowest-paid and invisible work, while white women are mostly servers and bartenders – highly visible and higher-paying positions. Most Black men (American born) are housemen and cooks, constantly in work-related tension with (women) housekeepers and wait staff, while most white (American born) men are banquet servers, bartenders, servers and bellmen - the highest-paid positions in the hotel.
I learned that the framework of postmodern intersectionality was only partially transferable to the context of organizing my hotel. The assumptions and language I had been given were highly academic and too referential to upper middle class culture and values. I had a framework – intersectionality – but not the tools for how to organize with it. I needed a structural framework for how to build power using my understanding of intersectionality.
Earning seniority: Principles to guide practice
In my five years working and organizing in the service industry among majority working-class women of oppressed nationalities2, I’ve concluded that Leftists need to be good organizers, capable of applying our theory to practice and building power that people can see and exercise. Through intentionality, trial and error, collective study and a willingness to learn from my mistakes, I came to a historical materialist understanding of intersectionality and a new set of guiding principles for my organizing:
(1) Just calling people out on bad behavior is not effective feminist practice. People change in relationships and learn by doing. In order to raise political consciousness, we must first build deep personal relationships and engage people in collective struggles against oppression.
(2) We must wage strategic fights that affect material conditions in the lives of many working-class people, centering women and prioritizing oppressed nationality women in particular. To correct the mistakes of often internally-racist women's rights and labor movements, we focus on leadership development of oppressed nationality2 women in building working-class organizations. To significantly build the power of working-class women, we must constantly be wrestling with how we build large-scale fighting organizations with large-scale leadership development through waging struggle.
(3) We must seek the correct balance of inclusive process and care work with the urgency of our need to win. We don’t just want soldiers, but critical thinkers and healthy, democratic and sustainable organizations. But on the other hand, we must be grounded in what’s at stake for the whole working class. We cannot focus on internal process if it means we lose our sense of urgency and lose power. We must be accountable to the entire class, not just the group of people immediately around us.
The first guiding principle uses the materialist understanding that consciousness follows action, and the (feminist) wisdom that transformation happens by way of deep personal relationships. As conscious organizers we constantly ask ourselves: How do we effectively challenge sexism, racism and homophobia when it manifests in the people we organize among? In my experience, my co-workers of all races and genders with sexist or homophobic ideas are not bad people and shouldn’t be patronized. Ruling class institutions every day bombard us with ideas like individualism, deference to authority, racism and sexism to maintain and perpetuate capitalism and U.S. global dominance. Using a historical materialist approach, we can understand the ideas people have as a reflection of the society within which we exist. Because I see the primary cause of oppression to be systemic rather than interpersonal, I do not believe that simply “calling people out” is an effective practice.
Many of us cultivated by post-modern intersectionality learned that it's “not our job” to wrestle with people with a degree of relative privilege to us; for example, that as a woman I should never have to wrestle with a man over his sexism. While we are all wounded by the power struggles in our lives, the individualistic assumptions of postmodern intersectionality can lead us to not understand how class fits into the picture. Without a class analysis, for example, you would not be able to distinguish between a white male coworker and a white male general manager. The difference, which is significant, is that one has agreed to act as an agent of the system of oppression, the other has not - and in fact, my coworker is part of the class, the “we,” someone I need to build with in order to fight the system. If you are not focused on building collective power, it is easier to “opt out.” However, if you are trying to build power among the class as a whole you are forced to wrestle with systemic solutions to systemic conditions.
What I propose is a framework for challenging one another’s oppressive ideas, while understanding that ultimately, we need strategies for systemic transformation, and that individual transformation will not on its own overthrow oppressive systems. Rather than challenging every instance of oppressive behavior on principle, I look for openings to make real breakthroughs with my co-workers, really understanding who people are and introducing challenges to their ideas slowly, over time, and as part of someone’s participation in collective action. A person’s willingness to wrestle with ideas and change their mind depends on relationships of trust and respect, alongside concrete experiences that challenge their assumptions. For example, learning to fight in a collective way versus on one’s own can have a powerful impact on someone’s worldview and stance towards those different from them.
I believe that having a deep understanding of someone through organizing with them, is key to being able to intervene in unhealthy behavior. When you know someone in a deeper way you can identify patterns of behavior and better take advantage of opportunities to intervene in those patterns. For example, my co-worker Lucy, a fairly progressive white woman who worked service jobs to pay her way through college, had a pattern of using the phrase “that’s gay” to mean “that’s corny” or “that’s stupid.” She was someone I had built a lot with, whose trust I had earned; She respected, listened to and cared about me. I also oriented her towards the power of a union at our job and she became pro-union, coming on several delegations about workplace issues as a result.
It felt strange and uncomfortable when I first heard her use the term gay in a disrespectful way, and I didn’t quite know how to challenge it at first. Once I identified it as a pattern of behavior, I was intentional about finding a meaningful way to challenge her that would stick for her, not just make me feel relieved for calling her out. One day, a friend of hers who was a particularly obnoxious customer was talking in a really disrespectful and crude way about the Holocaust. I promptly told him, “You need to shut the fuck up, my family members died in the Holocaust.” He realized he had crossed a line, and my coworker realized how deeply he offended me and felt remorse for her friend’s actions.
I used it as an opportune moment to tell her that when she used the word gay to mean “stupid” or to dismiss something, that offended me, too. The message stuck, and not only because in the particular moment she was engaged emotionally and able to see herself mirrored in her friend. It stuck because we had built a relationship of accountability from my role in organizing with her to have her write-ups thrown out, a relationship in which she trusted that I was on her side when it mattered, and in which she had seen me take principled stances in other situations. In the context of relationship building and collective action, it stuck so well, she apologized - and moving forward, made a marked shift in her language choice as part of how she wanted to act in a principled way.
When building a union, we cannot afford to write off people like my co-worker just because they don’t have the correct line - because it’s not just about ideas. When and how we raise ideas is important, but only in relation to the concrete balance of forces that shape our lives. Thus, our ability to bring people together is essential for us to shift the balance of power in the workplace - and in union organizing, power is always at stake! Power is always at stake because there is never a moment in which management is NOT actively reinforcing the ideas of individualism and deference to authority.
We need to win over people like my co-worker to the need for collective action, as part of a shared class experience, and then be intentional about changing their minds on other political ideas. This is not to say there are never moments when we challenge each other on sexist or racist ideas before or while winning people over to collective action. What I do want to emphasize, however, is that we need a base-line of unity to build a large-scale fighting organization able to exercise power in the workplace.
The second guiding principle for putting historical materialist intersectionality into practice is: pick and win fights that affect material conditions in many women’s lives, and make working-class, oppressed nationality women more powerful. A feminist political program needs to make concrete gains that affect women and queer folks, and that build our capacity to be the agents of change. It’s not just about attacking patriarchal ideas, but creating a material basis for those patriarchal ideas to be defeated at the systemic level.
This starts by tying the harsh realities of personal struggle to the collective realities of women. Feminism taught us that the personal is political. Each of our lives, and particularly the lives of working-class, oppressed nationality women, are rife with daily, micro-level interpersonal power struggles. This reality is not just important for our analysis, it’s also important for our organizing. For example, many housekeepers have shared with me stories of standing up to abusive husbands or controlling boyfriends and how it shaped their sense of self and strength, ultimately making them feel that they can stand up to the boss and feel politically powerful. (In turn, experiencing political empowerment also helps women claim power in their personal relationships.) It is important that we don’t stop with analyzing or understanding personal experience. We must be connecting the two spheres in a way that translates into political power.
When my union committee members and I organize our workplace to defend our union contract, we are wrestling with the question of scale using a classed, gendered and racial lens. During our contract campaign, we fight to defend our healthcare coverage, pension (employer funded retirement) and staffing language that secures jobs and affects the conditions and security of many women’s lives. Organizing to set a standard within an industry that is majority oppressed nationality women and immigrant women is a powerful wave of change. Since the majority of my co-workers are women and their jobs are the ones that the company is directly attacking, our collective fight has material implications for their lives and their families. Thus, given the conditions of Philadelphia, the service industry is a strategic location for organizing with a historical materialist, intersectional, approach.
A material win in this context has all sorts of implications, even beyond the unionized workplace, improving conditions in non-union shops and exposing the drastic difference between union and non-union conditions - which aids the fight to do new organizing. In order to build a mass movement that pulls forward leadership and membership of thousands of working class women, we must wrestle with the objective reality that for the majority of these women their lives are in constant crisis. Waging fights that allow women to have more control over their lives and security at their jobs allows them to feed and care for themselves, their families, and to organize more effectively. This work is feminist not only because it centers around and affects women, but because it fundamentally challenges the logic of white-supremacist, capitalist patriarchy. This work is feminist because it empowers women to act collectively to shift the balance of power vis-a-vis a ruling class institution - a multinational corporation - that otherwise controls their conditions.
The third guiding principle for putting historical materialist intersectionality into practice is: the need to find the correct balance between the processes and care work needed to build a healthy, democratic organization, and the importance of the need to win. By correct balance, I mean one that recognizes that the primary cause of our oppression is systemic, and not individual. In our work, we are not only accountable to the individuals around us, but also to the class as a whole, and we need to have victories and an orientation that shows that.
Postmodern intersectionality is grounded in the importance of individual needs and sustainability, identity and self-determination. Postmodern intersectionality takes an important lesson from previous radical movements, by intentionally creating safe spaces for people with marginalized experiences and identities to encourage community and leadership development. I believe we can learn and apply this thinking without losing sight of the crisis in our communities, the reality that we are losing in relationship to US capitalism, and that we need to have victories so that people can believe that change is possible. This is important and made apparent on a daily basis at the job, fighting to build and maintain our union. I believe we can invest time in creating safe spaces that feed into and support our movement, and that we can invest in our internal growth without deprioritizing the need to fight external forces. People need to believe that it is worth their time to invest and that the program and vision we are articulating is possible.
There are two examples of how we can organize with this third principle in mind. First, we recognize and stress the importance of urgency, while simultaneously maintaining a democratic orientation to our collective work. This means that sometimes we need to make hard decisions with little time and inability to talk to everyone. What I have learned in union organizing is that a democratic orientation does not mean that we always have to confer with every single person or operate with a completely structure-less system for decision-making. For working-class people, it is not more democratic to discuss and debate till 4 in the morning; in fact, it is exclusionary. It is more democratic to elect officials who have legitimate authority and can be held accountable. We have a series of committee structures for our organization that allow us to function effectively with a high level of accountability under high stress situations with limited resources.
One example of a high urgency, high cost scenario was when management was attacking me with multiple unfair write-ups in one night, which under a system of “progressive discipline,” meant that I could have been fired. This attack was direct retaliation for successful advances in our contract campaign and we had to hold an emergency committee meeting and create a response plan. Urgency was key because we would lose power during a very important fight that would affect many union members if the company got away with attacking union members for union activity. It also meant that not everyone was consulted and we needed to default to those with the most experience and the best plan for that moment.
Because of the urgency of that particular moment, we could only afford to take a small amount of time to make that decision. In general, though, we maximize time spent in conversation, and whenever conditions allow, this is what we prioritize. Whenever we can afford to, we take our time to have a meeting and full participatory process. For example, the period of contract negotiations is a scenario of high cost but only some urgency, so my co-workers and I make time to have long conversations with all of our co-workers about what we want to fight for in our contract and what we have the ability to win. Any fight we pick that is not very time-sensitive will involve many meetings and conversations to bring in as much participation as possible.
To navigate these situations in a principled way:
- We need to recognize that some level of urgency and high cost drives the whole functioning, but a high level of urgency may govern particular moments. We recognize urgency because time is of the essence in our fights, and when costs are high there is a need for people with experience and legitimate authority to make decisions. With this framework, we can respond to crisis in a swift and sophisticated way, and we do not allow an intense sense of urgency to be used do away with democracy and feminist processes.
- We need to recognize that there is always something at stake when we do not use our time wisely. Therefore, we need to make objective assessments that balance the need to be participatory with the need to act correctly and swiftly in response to attacks. Additionally, we need to identify the dangers of erring too far on either side of that balance.
- We need to have as inclusive and participatory a process as possible given our assessment of what is at stake in a current moment. We must build a working-class democratic and participatory practice and culture that takes into account limitations on people’s time, conflicting schedules, and urgency in making a fight-back plan.
- We need to be transparent about our process.
- We need to have a communication structure that allows us to explain to folks affected or aware of the situation what the plan is and why.
- We all need to reflect together and learn from the actions we take. After high urgency/high cost situations, both those who made the decisions and those that didn’t reflect collectively, and we identify mistakes so they can be avoided in the future.
Finding the balance between process or care work and the need to win is ultimately about learning to be a conscious organizer. Being a conscious organizer means having an analysis of the root of the problem and feeling accountable to all who suffer under white-supremacist, capitalist patriarchy while being aware of the ways in which we can reproduce these oppressions if we are not consciously intervening in them. We need to show and not tell our co-workers that collective action is more effective than fighting alone. We also need to practice organizing that is sustainable and recognizes that we are human beings with emotional as well as political needs. Good organizers do this through the following:
1.) We show our values through our practice, organizing in a way that recognizes the need for our own self-care as well as the well-being and self-care of our people.
2.) We actively listen and are open to being moved by arguments that challenge our initial assumptions.
3.) We support our people in challenges they face in their lives that go beyond the workplace.
4.) We respect that people have needs and limits to their time, and prioritize a high-functioning decision-making and representative process in the way we organize.
5.) We recognize that the feeling of being powerful is an emotionally sustaining feeling - it is a false dichotomy between emotional and political needs. To learn and teach the organizing skills that allow us to pick and wage fights in the shop and win is one of our most powerful tools to fight against depression, isolation, burnout and hopelessness.
Tipping out at the end of the shift
This sounds simple; It was easy enough to write those sentences, but as anyone who has ever tried it knows, it is incredibly difficult. Eric Mann, in his book “Playbook for Progressives,” rightly says, “Organizing at its best is as complex as brain surgery.” It is not enough for us to mean well or be smart, we must be able to produce results in the form of leadership development and winning working-class people’s demands on the ground.
My experience has led me to draw certain conclusions about the type of organizing I think is needed given the challenges we face as a movement today. The principles I outline for historical materialist intersectionality come from hard-won lessons. I believe we need to do political consciousness-raising as part of how we build fighting organizations. It is through slowly building respect and trust, tackling organizing challenges together, and identifying patterns of behavior that over time our ideas can be heard in those teachable moments. I believe this is different from the way in which many younger radicals are taught to understand how to wrestle with what it means to challenge sexism or racism.
Historical materialist intersectionality doesn’t just give us a theory; it should give us a framework through which we can organize and develop program and strategy. I believe a historical materialist intersectionality suggests that we should organize around issues that affect nationally oppressed women, prioritizing their agency and leadership in creating a material force campaigning for broader change. Lastly, through my organizing experience I’ve learned that a historical materialist intersectional approach can recognize and stress the importance of urgency while maintaining a participatory, inclusive and emotionally sustainable orientation to our collective work. With a historical materialist intersectional approach we are accountable to the class as a whole and not simply individuals, because the primary cause of our oppression is systemic and not individual.
Organizing for broad social change requires determination, consistency and commitment. I have found that by grounding my organizing in historical materialist intersectionality, I’ve been part of significant victories on individual and collective levels, and I’m in it for the long haul in a sustainable way! What makes me believe we must challenge some of the unhealthy patterns of thinking in postmodern intersectionality is that I’ve seen the intentionality and effectiveness of my organizing grow with the refinement of these historical materialist intersectional practices. I believe that we can win and we will, and I believe that a historical materialist intersectional practice will be part of how we get there.
Dina Yarmus is a waitress at a Union Hotel and member of UNITE HERE Philly. She got to know her older sister better through becoming a waitress; a job her sister held for years causing family tension on holidays. She grew tremendously through being pulled in and becoming a leader in United Students Against Sweatshops in college. She currently serves on the executive board of the Coalition of Labor Union Women chapter in Philly. A fellow Union activist, described the thing that many people appreciate about Dina as, "Dina is really nice but don't f*ck with her."