Hollowing Out Social Justice Unionism
Those at the margins have always been, unfortunately, the litmus test — the canary in the coal mine, so to speak — of the strength of any intersectional movement. And we are seeing those at the margins fleeing from union spaces at record rates. As someone drawn into the labor movement at the birth of social justice unionism in my own union I was excited to finally see a labor organization that fought for me. I was drawn into the union because of its commitment to gender neutral restrooms, disability access, and centering Black voices in it’s organizing. I was drawn in because it was not (only) the racist, masculinist space I had imagined occupied so much of labor. But the shine of social justice unionism has worn thin in the past year, for myself and many of my women, femme, trans, and POC comrades. There are a number of forces at work which can help explain this turn; especially stigma, performative allyship, and austerity. Each of these has backfilled what was once a deep commitment to social justice — turning comrades and accomplices into performative allies within the labor movement. While social justice unionism, or at least its rhetoric, has persisted within my union there are dangers here which I hope other unions interested in social justice unionism can learn from and avoid.
Before exploring these forces it’s important to root this analysis within a historical context of my particular union. Prior to the wins made by Academic Workers for a Democratic Union (AWDU) in 2011 the caucus running the union, United for Social and Economic Justice (USEJ) also claimed it was committed to social justice and had leveraged stigma to argue that AWDU was “holier than thou” and simply interested in running the union into the ground. Keep this in mind as I unpack the use of stigma, performative allyship, and austerity today — that this is not new, but rather a consolidation of power and a refining of business unionist practices.
One of the first forces that have impacted social justice unionism is stigma. Erving Goffman, a sociologist, describes three different kinds of stigma. Stigma of character traits are “blemishes of individual character perceived as weak will, domineering, or unnatural passions, treacherous and rigid beliefs, and dishonesty, these being inferred from a known record of, for example, mental disorder, imprisonment, addiction, alcoholism, homosexuality, unemployment, suicidal attempts, and radical political behavior.” It’s this form of stigma which we’ll deal with primarily in talking about stigma in union spaces. In an effort to navigate stigma within union spaces, there has been a shift in the way stigma is assigned and navigated. In particular, there is a unique confluence between high pressure stakes in the union and moments of performative allyship, or “ally theatre.”
Stigma has played an important role in developing a culture of performative allyship. In an effort to avoid the stigma associated with being labeled a “union bureaucrat” or “paycheck first unionist” the majority of union leadership have taken on the label of “social justice unionist.” In doing so, their practices — whether at odds with social justice or not — can’t be challenged because violent practices have become “just a different way to do social justice unionism.” To call out these practices means being gas lit by people who say they cannot be harmful because they are committed to social justice. But the problem is that changing the label, but not the practices, is a part of ally theatre. It becomes more about signaling to others who share your set of power and privileges that you are good than about addressing problems deeply endemic to the institutions, like unions, that we navigate..
Let’s explore this a bit further. How can you identify performative allyship when you see it? Mia McKenzie, a writer for Black Girl Dangerous, gives us a few tips:
2. Ally theater features lots of poorly-disguised cries of “not all _______” and “I’m not like other ______”
Taking these into account, solidarity is not something you claim but transformational practices which prioritize decolonial and anti-oppressive logic. In the same vein as Mia McKenzie, I’d like to add some other signposts
4. Real solidarity isn’t asking the oppressed to wait. Instead of actively opposing violent practices performative allyship is asking for patience and understanding from those harmed until “the right moment” comes along.
5. Emphasizing unity over justice is a critical part of ally theatre. Union spaces often prioritize unity over justice, which means that the majority can be a “neutral” source of suppression.
6. Labeling the voices of oppressed people as claims of “more radical than thou.” This is an excellent way to shift stigma, and discredit concerns by moving the discourse to status competition rather than analysis or subject position.
Taking these signposts into account, it’s possible to deconstruct a difference between what is said and what is done within union spaces. Social justice unionism is an orientation towards union building which seeks to build intersectional solidarity with practices which center the voices of the marginalized. It’s ideal practices should avoid each of the pitfalls of ally theatre listed above. By comparing what is said with what is done it’s possible to address the insidious effects of performative allyship in our organizing spaces. It helps us to realize the difference in scope and commitment between solidarity and feel-good politicking.
Shallow commitments to intersectional social justice have cut into our ability to ward off austerity measures within our organizing spaces, especially in the current moment in which the Janus decision hangs heavily over public sector unions. This last point is crucial. In times of plenty, when resources and time are less constrained, it is easy to develop a model of social justice unionism. But austerity is often a test of a union’s commitments. What happens when we have to fight to stay solvent? What does it mean to have to prioritize existence? It’s in these moments that we see performative allyship come to the fore — the wait, let’s be strategic, it’s not the right time rhetoric blossoms under these conditions. It is a politics which doesn’t advocate for marginalization, it simply lets it happen. To put it another way, the orientation of austerity is not to actively harm, but simply not to help. The harm, and sometimes death, that results from austerity then becomes a part of some larger inexplicable process rather than the outcome of calculated human decisions.
Both historically and in the contemporary moment we can find examples of this turn happening in American social movements. It was the Human Rights Campaign demanding the trans flag be taken down at a rally outside of the Supreme Court because it “confused the message.” It’s Cleveland’s Pride siccing the police on Black queer folks for interrupting the pride celebrations to bring attention to the violence still happening against Black queer people. Those of us on the margins are always told to wait, that we’ll get justice, and when that justice is achieved for the few we are ostracized and incarcerated for asking, “What about us? Our bodies? Our communities?” In each of these examples, the social movement organization claimed progressive ideals and a commitment to social justice — only to reveal the performative nature of their allyship when their power and authority were questioned.
Each of these examples demonstrates the role of austerity in social movement organizing — a drive to be understood and recognized by the majority. In trying to destigmatize their own position they rely on marginalizing others. At least the white woman is white. At least the Black man is cis. In a world where power and recognition is a scarcity, intersectional organizing or as Audre Lorde put it “organizing through difference” is increasingly difficult to do. By acceding to the model of scarcity, the logic and strategic steps practically choose themselves. Those who dream and organize outside those logics are “too radical” or “not practical.” They are dangers to the ongoing life of the organization. They need to be expelled.
And we are a danger to those who prioritize the continued existence of an organization over that of justice. As a dreamer, my Black queer dream is to live in a world where we no longer need a union. I am not a unionist because I believe unions must exist forever — but that they are a vehicle to see a world in which I can live. If we become too concerned with the life of the institution and not the lives of those harmed by capitalism and other axises of oppression then we have failed. We have already acceded to a life of exploitation. And I want to dream bigger than that.
Developing and applying these perspectives and criteria should be part of the practice of every unionist — but I want to speak specifically to my marginalized comrades now. Use this. Use it to avoid gas lighting by the powerful. You are right to feel anger, and disappointment, and fear. When you feel crazy and out of control, when they try to turn your voice on you, use this to ground yourself. Copy and paste that ish. You don’t need to cite me. I’m not saying anything we haven’t said before. Just laying it out, plain to see.