Beyond the Workplace

This article by Amber A’Lee Frost has been making the rounds, approved by many different strains of leftists. It’s a good piece by one of my favourite political writers, and I broadly agree with the suggestion that we need to focus on boots-on-the-grounds struggles instead of petty cultural disputes. (Or electoral cheerleading, which is a whole different article.) However, the conclusion ultimately leaves me a little hesitant. Frost argues that labour struggle is the only alternative to frivolous symbolic gestures:

Rallies are fine. I’m not suggesting we retire the rally, but let’s remember what political theater actually does and does not accomplish: marches are for morale, protests are for pathos, but strikes? Strikes are for getting the goods, and that requires organizing workers. The hub of political power is not academia; it is not the internet; it is not the media, or comedy, or romance, or friendship, or art, or theory. It’s the workplace. And however “deviant” or unwanted this message may be, there are workers — mostly ignored by the broader left — who are nonetheless transmitting it loud and clear.

This is a suggestion that I’ve heard echoed a lot recently in everything from podcasts to local organizing discussions. Frost states things even more bluntly in the essay’s final sentences:

Only labor can make it happen. Only workers can shut down production. Only workers can close the ports. Only workers can take capital hostage and make the whole world stand still.

It may be that I’m nitpicking rhetoric here, but I feel a need to say: only labour?

I’ve been involved in union struggles before, and believe that they are critical to any progressive vision. Every worker should be in a union. And actions like the NYTWA picket Frost talks about are exactly what is needed now. But labour activism necessarily excludes one group of people: the unemployed.

About 1 in 11 Americans, and roughly the same number of Canadians, are unemployed. (Official unemployment numbers are lower, but only because they exclude large groups of people.) That’s a huge number of people to leave out of activism. This group disproportionately includes society’s most vulnerable: the disabled, the young, the elderly, black and Indigenous people. It is the unemployed whose very lives are at danger from capitalism’s failures as well as its monstrous successes. And we know that organizing the unemployed can be effective: during the Great Depression, a militant unemployed movement was one of the main spurs for FDR’s move towards full employment.

I also have a bit of a personal interest in this type of organizing. I’m currently on the verge of post-graduation unemployment, and I’m terrified. I’m scared of having to beg and scrape my way for jobs that are always just out of reach, of being seen as a failure, of losing the life I’ve built over the past several years. And I’m from a middle-class background with the safety net of moving back in with my parents if everything goes pear-shaped. I can’t imagine knowing that only the caprice of a middle manager stands between you and homelessness. Is the left really willing to overlook people in this scenario? Beyond the ethical questions, the absence of a left response to unemployment will leave only right-wing explanations about immigrants and “traditional values.”

To be clear, I’m not accusing Frost or anyone else of being uncaring towards the unemployed. But if we’re making arguments about political priorities, we have to be careful about our omissions. And deprioritizing capitalism’s most disadvantaged would be a huge strategic and moral mistake.

There are also limits to what labour unions can accomplish on their owns. In order to win concessions, unions have to promise the employer a few years of business as usual (labour peace, to use radical jargon.) This promise exists in tension with any attempts at broader activism, such as the general strikes Frost brings up. Even the most radical union leadership often finds their hands tied when it comes to what they can accomplish.

Unions are also often forced to conform to the existing hierarchies of work. I work in a university, and the thousands of workers on campus are divided into several different unions based on their job. Two instructors who do the same work might be in different unions with dramatically different pay, thanks to the gap between tenure-tack and sessional employment. If these unions could all go on strike at once, their power would be immensely greater, but the current shape of the labour market makes this impossible.

Focusing solely on workplace organizing also makes it difficult for us to ever imagine a way out of the workplace. I believe in the power of utopian anti-work thinking as something that instinctively resonates with worker’s lived experiences. The need for unions to promise a restored workforce mitigates against this kind of thinking. A union might win you better pay and more benefits, and these are important things, but they can’t make getting up early in the morning to go to work suck less.

So yes, we need to organize as workers, and not just according to identity categories. But let’s also organize as tenants, as patients, as parents, as people who need food and shelter and a bit of happiness. For those who work, those who don’t, and those who do but would like to not, let’s revolutionize every aspect of our daily lives. Let’s not give the capitalists a minute of sleep.