Solidarity means your struggle is my struggle

May 3, 2018

Fighting for the oppressed has to be at the center of working class struggles if they're going to achieve even their short-term demands, writes Elizabeth Schulte.

SINCE DONALD Trump moved into the White House, we've seen a couple of responses play out over and over.

One has been despair. It's easy to see in the Trump administration's attacks on the most vulnerable in U.S. society--from undocumented immigrants to Muslims to women--and in the increased organizing by the far right, invigorated by Trump's hateful policies, evidence that the U.S. is in bleak times, with more of them to come.

The other response has been solidarity--from the first weeks of Trump's presidency, when people rushed to airports to protest his Muslim travel ban, to NFL players taking a knee to protest police brutality, to the #MeToo wave when women stepped forward to talk about their experiences of sexual assault and harassment.

Today, in the so-called "red states" that voted for Trump, we're seeing another example of solidarity: Teachers walking out of the classroom to demand the wages and working conditions they deserve, and finding that there are educators in other states who are part of the same fight.

Protesters in New York City rally against the murder of Trayvon Martin

The wave of teachers' strikes that have struck five states this spring--so far--contradicts just about everything we're taught in the U.S.: that we and our families are on our own and in it for ourselves; that whether we starve or succeed is totally up to what we decide to make of ourselves.

By contrast, the whole experience of these strikes and protests has been not just teachers working together, but a recognition that their futures are inextricably tied to one another, and they have to struggle together.

As a rural Kentucky social studies teacher explained in an interview with SW, referring to the West Virginia teachers' strike the month before: "Seeing how those school teachers could come together in solidarity was really awesome. It lets me know that it's possible for thousands of people to come together for a common cause."

This is an important point because the society we live in sets up some intimidating obstacles to workers concluding that they have shared interests or that they have a stake in one another's liberation.

The obstacles include obvious forms of discrimination and bigotry, like racism or sexism or anti-LGBTQ prejudice. But the divisions sown among workers are even more extensive: the unemployed are pitted against the employed; young worker against those who are nearing retirement; low-wage workers who don't have a union against higher-paid workers who do.

Workers can be isolated from one another within their workplaces for all sorts of reasons.

THE PEOPLE who have a stake in the system--corporate executives and owners, the politicians who preserve the status quo, the media that back up their ideas--attempt to undercut any inclination toward solidarity as if it was a contagious and deadly disease.

One recent news story shows the depths of the bosses' cynicism: When the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) organized a fast in New York City to demand that fast-food giant Wendy's adhere to a Fair Food Program that increases wages and protects farmworkers from sexual abuse in the fields, corporate spokesperson Heidi Schauer accused workers of trying to "exploit the positive momentum that has been generated by and for women in the #MeToo and #TimesUp movement to advance their interests."

In case you didn't believe it the first time, let me clarify: A fast-food corporation that refuses to sign an agreement barring sexual harassment of workers who pick its food--a demand that has been part of the CIW's campaign for years, by the way--is accusing farmworkers of "exploiting" the Hollywood women who helped initiate the #MeToo campaign against sexual harassment.

Some prominent Hollywood female voices of #TimesUp had a few choice words for Wendy's: downright absurd and unbelievably offensive.

Farmworkers' organizations early on lent solidarity to women in Hollywood when they initiated #MeToo, and vice versa. As the Alianza Nacional de Campesinas wrote in a statement for the Take Back the Workplace march in Los Angeles last year:

In these moments of despair, and as you cope with scrutiny and criticism because you have bravely chosen to speak out against the harrowing acts that were committed against you, please know that you're not alone. We believe and stand with you.

When you think about it, if farmworkers were able to win a measure that challenges sexual harassment in the fields, it would go a long way toward helping women in Hollywood achieve their own safe working environments.

In some ways, farmworkers, though they face intense oppression and exploitation, have greater potential power in this regard because the conditions of their work lend themselves more readily to workers organizing collectively and in unity. But I'll come back to that point.

I talked to someone recently who described the hotel where she worked and all the ways that solidarity was blocked among workers--sometimes in ways that are obvious ploys by management to keep workers divided, and others where the divisions seem less purposeful, but were nonetheless real.

Workers were divided by ethnicity and language. Common sense would suggest that people work better together when there is translation available so they can better understand each other. But then there's the "danger," from the bosses' point of view: workers could better organize together around their common grievances, too.

In one example this hotel worker gave, #MeToo was turned on its head: women aren't eligible for certain jobs that required them to be alone with hotel guests in their rooms, because management said they worried about women workers' safety. Those jobs just so happen to be the highest-paying ones at that hotel, and they go exclusively to men.

IT SPEAKS to the power of solidarity that the ruling class finds so many ways of keeping workers from discovering their potential strength when they struggle together.

And this underlines why we can't rely on solidarity to be automatic or to sustain itself--it has to be continually re-enforced and built upon.

The U.S. has a rich and too-often-hidden history of workplace militants actively taking on divisions and creating their own conditions for true solidarity and power.

In the lead-up to the 1990s War Zone labor struggles in Decatur, Illinois, activists found ways for workers to come together at work and test their collective strength against management--like filing grievances not as individuals, but as groups of workers.

They brought their message to the community, with the slogan "It's our solidarity versus theirs." In a town with a fairly clear history of racism and bigotry, white workers came to understand that they needed the Black workers in this fight, so they put concerns about racism up front. Black and white workers marched together on Martin Luther King Day, chanting, "Black and white, unite and fight."

For a lot of socialists and other activists radicalized by this fierce labor struggle now more than 20 years old, this was the first time we did the solidarity clap--a unison clap that starts slowly in order to make sure everyone has a chance to catch up, getting faster and louder, until the whole room yells "Solidarity!" and shoots their fists in the air.

During the recent teachers' organizing, they organized actions to test their numbers and strength as a unified group--for instance wearing red shirts one day, blue ones another. They showed state legislators that they were serious and united, and they showed themselves what their actual forces were.

Nor has it been lost on anyone that the vast majority of the educators rebellion across the country are women--and the lowest-paid workers with college degrees in the country, on average.

But the teachers also knew this couldn't just be a fight for themselves. Teachers in West Virginia set the tone by making sure that they didn't settle for a raise just for themselves, but for all public-sector workers.

As for the parents--working people affected by the strike--teachers made sure to highlight and engage with what they were facing, too.

The strikers set up food banks for students who rely on school meals, and they emphasized that legislators were turning their backs on both the students who were supposed to learn in underfunded, overcrowded classrooms, while their teachers had to work for poverty wages.

In their 2012 strike, Chicago teachers made their broader goes clear with the slogan: "Our Teaching Conditions Are Your Child's Learning Conditions." Striking Chicago teachers also understood that their fight had to be linked to fighting the racism of mass closures of schools in Black neighborhoods.

WHEN KARL Marx wrote about how the working-class is divided, and those divisions have to be challenged--in his example, he used the case of English and Irish workers--he said that this was "not a question of abstract justice or humanitarian sentiment but the first condition of their own social emancipation."

In other words, fighting racism and sexism isn't simply a matter of doing the right thing--which is important enough--but also seeing your own liberation as inextricably linked to the liberation of the oppressed and everyone else.

When your co-workers can be abused at work because they are immigrants or women, it increases the chances that you can be abused as well. When workers take up these struggles, their potential as a united, collective force fighting for better conditions for all is stronger. When they don't, they are weakened, sometimes fatally.

All this is so much clearer when workers are challenging the bosses and solidarity is an absolute necessity in order to win.

But the fight against oppression can't afford to wait for open struggles. As socialists, we need to make sure that the struggle against racism or sexism doesn't take a backseat to economic struggles--because they two are fundamentally linked.

The kind of solidarity we're talking about can happen quickly in times of struggle, but it has to be constantly built and reaffirmed, especially when there's little sustained struggle.

For socialists at work, that means fighting for workplace free of sexual harassment and racism--whether the battle of the day is counter a sexist joke or racist smear, or to challenge discriminatory treatment.

Without that fight, none of us can be free.

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