Reprinted with permission from the January 2017 issue of The Prairie Progressive, Iowa’s oldest progressive newsletter, available only in hard copy for $12/yr. Send check to PP, Box 1945, Iowa City 52244.
by Jesse Case
Although it feels like we lost the war on November 8, I would argue that overwhelming and paralyzing fear is a horrible response to an election. Fear leads to irrational decisions. Panic. Paralysis. Along with paralyzing fear, we seem to be experiencing an epidemic of paralysis through analysis.
The Labor Movement, like all successful movements, wasn’t built on fear and idleness. It was built on courage. People began organizing with no laws to protect them. People were beaten for concerted activity. People were killed attempting to raise standards for their families. People stood up to confront dangers and injustices when laws didn’t exist to protect workers and families. People with courage. Those people adapted their tactics to the fight they were in.
Our political opponents of today adapted their tactics and won the war. They kept us busy trying to survive, and when we weren’t looking they carpet-bombed us. They kept us so busy in hand-to-hand combat that we forgot to notice that the war we’re losing is not the war we should be waging. Unions have been fighting the battle over workers’ rights to organize into individual bargaining units, when the real battle is to create a social movement that gives workers power on and off the job.
Research shows that almost every problem facing working families is disproportionately affected by socioeconomics. Hunger, homelessness, diabetes, mental health, housing, drug abuse, smoking, wage theft, incarceration….. every issue affects working families disproportionately. And the less you make, the less likely you are to have advocates and services. Now the far right has a plan to cut services even more, and launch an attack on the advocates for the exact people who need it most – working families.
If unions want to be the “voice of working people’ we must expand our mission and redefine who we are as an organization. We must redefine the war. And we have to start by building our own infrastructure for the new war.
Movements aren’t built in a day and they’re not killed in a day. A single election, Supreme Court decision, or regulatory ups and downs cannot be the determining factor in defining success for a movement. The movement remains the same but the tactics have to change! The train wrecks in Des Moines and DC are all the reasons we need to change the battlefield and finally start organizing on a grassroots level – in our neighborhoods.
The union I’m a member of, Teamsters Local 238, with 6000 members in 86 Iowa counties, knows that the resistance on attacks on working families must be built not just job site by job site, but neighborhood by neighborhood. Community by community. Town by town. Along with our traditional and core mission of collective bargaining, Teamsters will be working with our allies to survey working families in both union and non-union households, and to build community committees to fight for and find solutions to our issues.Coalitions in different towns may be working on different issues, depending on the issues working families have identified.
We won’t wait for the next election. We don’t have to. There are no laws that say unions can’t organize and advocate for working families outside of the workplace. We don’t need anyone’s permission. Building infrastructure at the neighborhood level is now core to the mission of the Teamsters union in Iowa.
We don’t need a law to tell us we can organize in our workplace, in our communities, in our state. Thinking we needed the permission of the government to fight to protect standards of working families is a trap we fell into. A trap that made us comfortable. It got us off the street. It got us out of the neighborhoods. They can change the laws, but they can’t “You’re Fired” us from the movement, like a reality TV show. If they change our laws, it’s an opportunity for us to evolve as a movement.
Unplanned events move us down new paths with new opportunities. Thinking strategically instead of emotionally is necessary. We shouldn’t be afraid to redefine our movement. We should be afraid of waking up and going through the day without doing anything except analyzing our losses to the point of paralysis. How we deal with our fear will define our courage and leadership.
–Jesse Case grew up in Storm Lake, Iowa.