The last post in the Union Triad Series.
The Union Triad: Community Activism
Local communities are important venues for consciousness raising and for leadership development. The key, it seems, is finding members well suited and willing to devote time and energy to cultural work and community activism.
Community builders use methods much like organizers but instead of the politically charged manner of the organizer, the community builder emphasizes symbolic appeals aimed at including the broadest possible number of people regardless of their involvement with unions. Community builders emphasize universal values and articulate lofty aspirations because communities are the social form through which shared understandings and identities take on tangible life as human activity.
Enduring attachments and deep-seated affinities between people cluster around affirmations of goodness that usually take the form of positive ideals, images, relationships, and values. We fail to win people’s support and allegiance because we too often rely solely on criticism, resistance, and opposition to the negative.
In human imagination, the greatest good usually resides not in critical discourse but in symbol or the narratives of tradition, myth or history. Activists should engage the cultural vehicles that carry shared meanings and identities if they aim to build community.
The hard-boiled union leader or macho organizer may snicker at such talk and the labor movement has largely retreated from symbolic work surrendering the field to the military, state, church, family, and mass media. The scholarly community too largely avoids the study of how meaning is constructed preferring instead the easier work of social criticism and critical theory. But without a sense of connectedness between individuals that share a common sense of history, interests, ideals, and values our movement will be unable to mobilize millions.
Community lifts people beyond the enervating internal politics and grueling struggles of unions so they may reconnect with the deep reasons that motivated their activism in the first place. At their best communities prefigure a better world even if that sense of belonging and transcendence proves fleeting.
It is no coincidence that the civil rights movement, one of the most successful and enduring social struggles in modern history, was animated by a powerful, capacious sense of community. Martin Luther King viewed the creation of the “beloved community” as the ultimate goal of the movement and drew on the teachings of Jesus, Thoreau, Gandhi, and the style and sensibility of African-American Christianity to craft a powerful sense of belonging that proved to have global appeal.
The appeal was not to belonging for the simple sake of belonging. The community aspired to universal values that prepared its members for the long haul. “How long?” Recalling the words of 19th century abolitionist, and theologian Theodore Parker, Dr. King answered, “Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Similarly, the labor movement must look creatively at its own traditions and find universal values that will both draw on and transcend existing worker identities.
If community builders focus too closely on prefigurative politics and distance themselves from day-to-day struggles they can often begin to presume the movement to be more powerful, the world more easily changed, or people more easily perfected than is actually the case and so are tempted to raise barriers to participation. Communities lose their power by becoming too exclusive, drawing a firm boundary between the purified and the fallen.
Community builders can sometimes forget that all values are aspirational and lapse into holier or more-radical-than-thou moralism. Successful community builders err on the side of inclusion and address problems with compassion and engagement, not condemnation, instant analysis or moral self-righteousness. In the end however community alone always falls short. Since dominant culture and the political power of governmental and corporate elites are institutionalized and reproduced daily, the community efforts alone can envision the ideal but never realize it.
This essay suggests that the labor movement has three interrelated and contradictory projects. Representation, organizing and community building are all necessary, conflicting and complementary. In the same way we should accept and draw strength from cultural diversity, so this type of political diversity can also be a source of insight and power. We all need to locate ourselves within these different trends, and to see these diverse tendencies within ourselves.
The balance between the three is dynamic and shifts over time. The ability of unions and other social movement organizations to effectively represent people was originally a product of extensive self-organization and struggle, the recasting of community allegiances, and dramatic transformations in consciousness. On that foundation the movement constructed a professionalized bureaucracy dedicated to representing and servicing its constituency.
Despite the dedication of vast resources to representation those efforts slowly lost power and momentum. The focus of labor activism became the maintenance of organizations and institutions rather than the more risky work of movement building or the more creative work of prefigurative politics.
The time is way overdue for us to adopt organizing and community building activities more akin to the kinds of activism associated with democratic upsurges of the past. Let us not be rightly accused of “not having the sense we were born with.”