Written by Cecil Cahoon
In Roman mythology, Janus was the two-faced god of Rome's gates and doorways, watching over the interior of the city and guarding against outside invasion at the same time. His divine gift was to see backward to the past and forward to the future. So when the Romans expanded the annual calendar from 10 months to 12 months, more than two and half millenia ago, they used his name to mark the month where time crosses from one year to the next.
Organizers across America find ourselves spending this January similarly looking backward at how we've done our work, and forward at how we'll do our work, when the Supreme Court issues its expected ruling in the case of Janus v. AFSCME. The fact is, while any Court ruling portends an instant change in laws, rules, regulations and the like, the work we do has been forever in flux.
Organizing, regardless of the context, has always required constant adaptation.
Our task has never been so easy as to sail a straight path repeatedly across smooth seas, but rather to monitor and adjust as weather conditions dictate. Showing mastery of the sea with one day's steady wind at our backs means nothing when the wind changes, or when storms arise, or when doldrums set in. To thrive through the perfect storm of decades-long anti-union cultural trends, an anti-union Trump administration, and an anti-union Janus decision, will require asking, again, the most fundamental questions about what we do and how we do it.
After all, the work itself doesn't change, though the conditions in which we work do.
Ask the best organizers you know to crystallize their mission into a few words and you may hear words like these: I empower people. I build networks. I move individuals and groups from thought to action. I prepare others to take leadership roles. I share what I know with those who will use it. I train the next generation of organizers. I change my world one relationship at a time. I do what needs doing.
None of these words -- empower, build, move, prepare, share, train, change, or do -- reflects values that only protect a static system or prior gains. Organizers from various schools of thought agree that organizing is dis-organizing and re-organizing. When we're effective, the hard-working women and men with whom we've built relationships are constantly engaged in dis-organizing and re-organizing the worlds in which they live.
To help me be more effective, I find it valuable to tell stories and to listen to the stories of others. The frames we build with the stories we tell create space in which others can find themselves, or not. For example, I like to tell stories about a time and a place in which mill owners and managers controlled every aspect of a mill worker's life, established systems of permanent indebtedness to keep their workers fearful of losing their jobs, and took advantage of that fear to commit all manner of indecency and inhumanity.
It's the details that make every story come to life. So I never forget to mention that mill owners often hired whole families at a time, packed them into mill-village shacks at a rate of twenty-five cents a room (if the shack had indoor plumbing and was furnished), and paid the family in mill scrip that was only redeemable at the company store.
Good mill owners -- and I like to point out that they were all good to their workers, so long as their workers did as they were told -- even spotted a poor family its first month's rent, and provided not only a mill church and a one-room school for those not yet old enough to work, but even hired the church's preacher and the school's teacher. With so many conveniences at hand, no worker ever had need or desire to go elsewhere, learn what life was like in another town, or stumble onto opportunities that might lead to economic improvement.
I purposefully tell stories like these because they represent a time and a place so far removed from today's reality that my listener can find little or no relationship between the mill owners and mill workers of long ago, and their own relationships with their employers, directors, managers, supervisors, principals, or superintendents today. This way, it strikes them as a bit odd when I ask who had the better life in those days: the mill owners and managers with so much risk and responsibility weighing upon them, or the carefree workers?
Surely it was the carefree workers, I like to suggest. Right?
At some point, someone will mention that children were harmed by a lack of education, and that young women in the mills were regularly victimized by men with titles and authority. Someone might note that the threat of one family member losing a job meant the whole family might be fired, and evicted, and have their belongings confiscated to paid debts. Someone might mention the blacklisting that occurred among mills in that time.
Even so, I like to say, we've come so far today that our lives and livelihoods bear no resemblance to the conditions of a century ago, no resemblance at all. Surely the women and men who populate the American workforce today enjoy the working conditions of their choice, the wages and benefits they deserve, and professional autonomies.
Even without collective bargaining rights for workers, I like to point out, state laws ensure that workers are paid fair wages with good benefits -- that is, except in all the states where they don't.
And federal law protects workers from being misused and abused -- that is, except in all the situations where they don't.
And even in those cases, we always have the good will and decency of a president and a judicial system that will protect us from harm -- that is, except in times and places like here in America, in the early months of 2018.
In the absence of strong collective bargaining rights, state and federal laws, and a president and a judiciary that protects ordinary Americans from rack and ruin at the hands of American oligarchs, and economic royalists, and today's version of those old-timey mill owners and managers, we really only have one another.
I like to pause here and reiterate that "one another" means "one, and another." And if I'm the "one" in "one another," are you going to be the "another"?
I wager that every organizer working in America today, regardless of profession or industry, knows a story like this one to tell. Every person who hears a story like this one has one of their own to match it. Telling these stories, and listening to them, is a potent way of building relationships, and expanding networks of relationships.
What's so much more exciting is when the story-telling turns to conversations about the uses and abuses of power, and how power is taken and grown, and why so many powerful entities in modern America are working so hard to keep power out of the hands of ordinary Americans. When the conversation turns to power, it's only a hot minute away from turning to discussions of action. Dare we call it "political" action?
It's then that sufficient wind can pick up slack sails, and a motivated crew can test its seafaring skills, and all of us can pick up speed together.
By asking the fundamental questions about what we do and how we do it, and by focusing intentionally on the oldest habit of relationship-building known to our species, it's not only possible to weather the storm facing our movement today, but to get through it stronger than we've been in generations.
[For additional thinking on how to talk to people about issues and challenges in way they're more likely to listen, follow George Lakoff's new podcast, "FrameLab." And, for general purposes, find and watch "The Uprising of '34" about the textile workers' strike on Labor Day, 1934, as told by people who participated in it.]