Organizing as Infrastructure

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #10 in October 2010]

I am an employee of Hudson News at O’Hare International Airport. One of the things that I learned when joining the Hudson team was that many of my co-workers—the majority of whom are living in poverty, are people of color, women, immigrants, or have disabilities—constantly face oppression in the workplace. We are paid barely enough to make ends meet, are treated without dignity, and are living with the constant fear that we could lose our jobs at any moment.

We have lost workers who, after management denied them permission to leave their stores long enough to use the restroom, decided to use the restroom and were terminated. This has caused some workers to try and hold it for hours, sometimes unsuccessfully, until management decides to relieve them. We have workers who have been at Hudson for 22 years and still make $8.50 an hour, the same amount as a new hire.

When workers are dependent on every last cent of every paycheck to pay rent, bills, health insurance, child care, etc., and there are so few other options, they start to believe that the only thing to do is keep a low profile and embrace the burden of perpetual fear. Oppression becomes normalized within both our workplace and our minds. To make change happen, you have to combat these fears, and organizing for change can only work if people trust you as a person.

Since diving headfirst into the union I have learned about the importance of relationship building when trying to fight the institution of power. To push someone to stand up for themselves and for that person to feel open to that push requires a relationship. Learning about someone’s past, going to get coffee or breakfast, talking on and riding public transit together after work, working long shifts together, and house visits, are all pieces of a structural framework that can connect people on a level that allows us to push past the fears we face.

The seemingly simple acts of building a purposeful human connection based on trust is the infrastructure that allows for a strong union or movement. No one will act alone or purely out of altruism, and people have a wide variety of reasons to be afraid to fight. But by having a relationship, knowing what they are experiencing and why they are afraid, and also having their trust, means that when you push someone on those reasons they are more likely to want to fight.

The infrastructure of the union is that of a vast network of trust. There is power in that. A strong infrastructure—established relationships with a wide variety of people—can give workers the strength needed to overcome injustices in the workplace. And because the injustices in the workplace mirror the injustices in our society, this is part of combating the oppressions that fuel the larger infrastructures of inequality.

After we unionized at Hudson, leaders on the union committee decided our first action was to wear our UNITE HERE Local 1 buttons as part of our uniform. This is a right allowed to us in the National Labor Relations Act and a way to show our unity—a display, albeit a small one, of power and dignity. One of our managers decided that this was not acceptable as part of our uniform and sent three overnight workers home for wearing their buttons.

Our committee decided to meet with our General Manager the next morning at 9:30. All 20 committee persons showed up at 9:30 to talk to him about our grievances and demand that our workers be allowed to work again and receive back pay for the days they were sent home. The GM refused to speak with us and literally ran from us through the airport. He did not agree to anything at that time but part of the victory was seeing the tables of fear turned and our own power once united.

Because the overnight committee members were still suspended, the whole overnight crew of about 40 people were pushed to wear buttons in solidarity with the leaders and to refuse to work until they were given their jobs back and also back pay for the night they were sent home. As was previously mentioned, workers at Hudson rely on every hour of pay to have enough money for rent and bills, and to feed our families. Asking someone to not only potentially risk losing those hours but also their jobs was a hard but successful push.

Every single overnight worker came in fifteen minutes early to receive their buttons and prepare themselves for what was to happen. They marched into the work area and stood side by side refusing to work. The overnight manager, seeing the force of workers together, gave in to our demands and we have had no problems wearing our buttons since then. Without the relationships that we had built and the trust we had in each other none of this would have been possible. This is one small victory in the scheme of our fight but it showed that a united work force—or any group of dedicated individuals—that has entrenched relationships of trust can fight institutions of oppression and power that before seemed impenetrable.

The work that has been accomplished at Hudson thus far has been tremendous but there is still work to be done and relationships and infrastructure to be laid. I encourage all people to try and learn more about the struggles of union workers, in particular, those of Unite HERE Local 1. The best way to do that is by getting involved in the Congress Hotel strike. It is the longest strike in recorded history and the workers there are true examples the power of the union organizing infrastructure. Speaking with them and learning about their fight, standing in solidarity with them, is a way to strengthen not only Unite HERE’s infrastructure of organizing for change, but in doing so, play a part in dismantling the oppression integral to the institutions of injustice in our society as a whole.

Lastly, organizing has to take place within each individual, we must push ourselves to reach out—organize our priorities and our values—and become members of these movements. Understanding why we fight for ourselves and our families is the first step in deciding at what lengths we will go and what we need to do to get there. ◊

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