How Can We Organize in Ways That Challenge Boundaries and Defy Exclusion?

Organizing is always constrained because of recognition. How do people become active participants in and act through groups such that their collective ends transcend reification of characteristics (e.g. Identity politics) or protection from a fixed set (e.g. Corporatist Politics) and instead extends toward an evolving and purposeful social movement. (e.g. Class politics)[76]This question is particularly relevant when it comes to the age-old problem of organizing unorganized US workers. Especially when the basic criterion for identification does not depend on a worksite or an occupational category. US labor history is dominated by worksite-and occupational-movement building, with group boundaries established by employers or by skills. These boundaries, of course, negatively organize — and even disorganize — the excluded because US worksites and occupations are historically segregated by both gender and race.[77]

A few times, US labor movements have expanded their practices by adopting a class-oriented approach to organizing. Whereas most such efforts resulted in failure — crushed by the capitalist state’s coercive and ideological apparatuses — some attempts along this way produced surprising results.[78]The Communist Party tried to organize workers in Birmingham’s new steel district in Alabama in the 1930s. However, it ran into racism that stopped the CPUSA from forming a movement where whites and Blacks could recognize each other as equal workers instead of being treated as unequal Americans. The organizers, who traveled to rural and urban mines looking for industrial laborers, discovered a surprising audience among predominately Black sharecroppers. The Sharecroppers’ Union adapted the CP analysis to their own precarious conditions, and the group grew rapidly, forming a network of cells in urban and rural locations throughout the region. To join the union, one did not need to be a sharecropper, employed, or Black. Upwards of six thousand millworkers and miners, in addition to dispossessed farmers (busy or idle), found common cause in a social movement through their understanding of their collective “equality” — which was, at that time, their individual interchangeability and disposability on northern Alabama’s agricultural and industrial production platforms.[79]The movement was eventually crushed by state forces, but the submerged remnants formed, according to the indigenous leadership, the regional foundation for intrawartime organizing and anti-racist activism.[80]

Justice for Janitors (JfJ), a labor movement that is innovative and has no worksite or occupation, is an organization in the low-wage services industry. Learning from history, JfJ’s strategy is to exploit the otherwise inhibiting features of the labor market by pursuing a “geographical” approach to organization.[81]In the wake of massive layoffs in the late 1970s/early 1980s, many firms broke janitorial unions that African Americans had worked hard to build under the tutelage of the Congress of Industrial Organizations.[82] Industry subcontracted maintenance and, thereby, negated labor’s hard-won worksite-by- worksite agreements.

The proliferation of small, easily organized janitorial service contractors has created a moving target for employers and made traditional wage bargaining difficult to implement and enforce.[83]Additionally, janitors who are working under the new arrangements often make less than minimum wages, which is a marked difference from those who fought for wages of ten dollars per hour or more in 1980.[84] Thus, in addition to pressing employers for contracts, JfJ’s solution is to organize both the actual market for janitorial services And Potential labor market for Janitors This areal approach limits employers’ flexibility because it is their actual and potential Clients Unionized contractors are those who agree to do business only. The solution also requires that labor organizing be community organizing as well, as was the case with the CPUSA’s work in 1930s greater-Birmingham. JfJ proposes a bottom up strategy to develop comprehensive regional plans. This will appeal to ex-janitors in targeted areas as well as potential janitors wherever these may be.[85]

Many people consider the normative limits of certain types of conflict to be the divisions between work and home, private and public, and on the stage capitalist culture. New opportunities for social movements open up when the political dimensions that are revealed in crises are breached in those limits. We have seen that Black working-class women walked the streets to redress the ideological and material distance between their unpaid and paid labor. Recent developments have seen janitors in the US make their clandestine exploitation more public. They combine community-based organizing and front-line, public-sphere militancy, led by immigrants who have been oppositional subjects to, for example, Salvadoran state terror.[86]

In Argentina, under the fascist military government (1977– 1983) the Madres of the Plaza de Mayo defied the expectation that women should not meddle in affairs of the state — which is to say the male, or public, sphere — by organizing on the basis of a simple and culturally indisputable claim that mothers ought to know where their children are. The fascists’ nightly raids to kidnap teenage and adult children, most of whom were never seen again, effectively coerced neighbors, who had not yet been touched, to avert their eyes and keep their mouths closed. However, a cadre of mothers, who first encountered each other in the interstices of the terrorist state — waiting rooms, courtrooms, and the information desks of jails and detention centers — eventually took their quest into the Plaza de Mayo. They demanded that their missing children be returned and that the perpetrators of terror be punished. The mothers wore head scarves made from diapers that each mother had written or embossed the name(s), so they could be recognized.[87]

The Madres’ fundamental position, echoing and echoed by similar movements in such places as South Africa, Palestine, and El Salvador, was and is that children are not alienable.[88] In order to make this position politically material in the face of continuous terror, the Madres permanently drew back the curtain between private and public, making “maternal” activism on behalf of children a daily job conducted as openly and methodically as possible. The Madres’ persistence, both before and after the official admission that the children had died horribly, transformed the passion of individual grief into the politics of collective opposition. In the beginning, the Madres were betrayed by the state and church, as well police, military, and priests. They learned to suspect both individuals and institutions, and as their analysis was enriched by experience, they placed their missing in the context a political-economic crisis. They did not return to their homeland after the emergence of a democratically-elected Argentina, but instead expanded their political horizons. Currently [1999], their politics focus on the effects of the country’s structural adjustment program, which has widened and deepened poverty and reduced opportunities for young people.[89]

Mothers ROC works in a political and economic climate that is as hostile as those which created each group we briefly reviewed. The ROC’s solutions to the problems constituting the daily struggle to reclaim their children draw from the structural features of radical self-help, from the strategies of organizing on every platform where conflict is enacted, and from the argument that mothers should extend their techniques as mothers beyond the veil of traditional domestic spheres. In a word, they enact the “consciencization” of motherhood.[90]The solutions are grounded, but not bound by, local conditions. Mothers ROC’s organicism is based on its focus on the specific sites and power scales that create prison geographies. And You can see how these sites and scales can be used to support oppositional ends.

Conclusion: From Crisis of Place to Politics of Space

A small, poor, multiracial group of working-class people, mostly prisoners’ mothers, mobilize in the interstices of the politically abandoned, heavily policed, declining welfare state. They come forward because they won’t let their children go. They continue to move forward in the spaces created in prison of their loved ones because they meet other mothers in the same places eager to participate in the reclamation project. And they push further, because from those breaches they can see, and try to occupy, positions from which to collectively challenge the individualized involuntary migration of urban “surplus population” into rural prisons.

“Arrest is the political art of individualizing disorder.”[91] Again and again, such individualization produces fragmentation rather than connection for the millions arrested in the US each year, as each person and household, dealing with each arrest, must figure out how to undo the detention — which appears to be nothing more than a highly rationalized confrontation between the individual and the state. The larger disorder is then reified in the typologies of wrongdoing such as gang activity; alternatively, the larger disorder is mystified as “crime,” which, like unemployment, is alleged to have a “natural” if changing rate in a social formation.[92] ROCers gradually but decisively refuse both the individualized nature of their persons’ arrests and the “naturalness” of crime, of poverty, of the power of the state.[93]They arrive at their critique by taking action. Action crucially includes the difficult work of identification — which entails production, not discovery, of a “suture or positioning.”[94]The ROCers transform their lives and the world around them through complex social and spatially-based processes of identification that pay attention to racial and gender specificities and commonalities.


76. Gramsci, Selections; Hall, “Gramsci’s Relevance,” and “Cultural Identity and Diaspora,” in Jonathan Rutherford (ed.), Identity: Community, Culture and DifferenceLondon: Lawrence and Wishart 1990; Doracie Zleta-Nantes, personal interview with author 1995.

77. Dorothy Sue Cobble, “Making Postindustrial Unionism Possible,” in S. Friedman et al. (eds), Restoring the Promise of American Labor Law, Ithaca, NY: ILR Press, 1994, 285–302, and Dishing it Out: Waitresses Their Unions in The Twentieth CenturyChicago: University of Illinois Press. 1991; Paul Johnston. Social Movement: Success while others fail Unionism and the Public Workplace, New York: ILR Press, 1994; Ruth Milkman, Gender at WorkChampaign-Urbana IL, University of Illinois Press 1987; David Roediger The Wages and Conditions of Whiteness: Race & the The American Working Class, New York: Verso, 1991; Howard Wial, “The Emerging Organizational Structure of Unionism in Low-Wage Services,” Rutgers Law Review 45 (1993): 671 738; Woods, Development Arrest.

78. Melvyn Dubofsky, We Shall Be All: A History Of The IWW, Champaign-Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1969; Phillip Foner, “The IWW and the Negro Worker,” Journal of Negro History (1970): 45–64; Wial, “The Emerging Organizational Structure of Unionism in Low-Wage Services.”

79. In the United States, the word “equality” seems often to connote an upward leveling. In The Arcane of Reproduction, Fortunati helpfully points out that other forms of “equality” (e.g., slavery) have analytical weight that requires political and organizational attention.

80. C. L. R. James et al., Combating Racism in World War Two, New York, Monad Press, 1980. Robin D. G. Kelley. Alabama: Hammer and Hoe Communists in the Great DepressionChapel Hill, NC, University of North Carolina Press. 1990. Nell Painter. The Narrative of Hosea HudsonHarvard University Press, 1979.

81. Johnston, Success while others fail; Wial, “The Emerging Organizational Structure of Unionism in Low-Wage Services.”

82. See James et al., Fighting Racism.

83. Employers who hire janitors today can disappear quickly, because they have no fixed capital or other constraints. Labor lacks the leverage it had in the past, when janitors were able to negotiate contracts directly with former employers (owners or restaurants, offices buildings, factories, etc.) which are now clients.

84. In 1980 dollars.

85. Eric Parker and Joel Rodgers The Wisconsin Regional Training Partnership, 1995 (manuscript in author’s possession); Wial, “The Emerging Organizational Structure for Unionism in Low-Wage Countries Services”; see also Elizabeth Faue, Community of Suffering and Struggle: Women, Men and the Labor Movement in Minneapolis, 1915–1945, Chapel Hill, NC: University North Carolina Press, 1990 and Woods Development Arrested. According to a presentation given by a JfJ organizing committee in Los Angeles in March 1993, organizing has, in some cases, stretched back to immigrant janitors’ towns of origin in Mexico and El Salvador. Insofar as it is common for people from a particular region to migrate to both the same area and labor-market niche as their friends and families who precede them, JfJ started to work backward along the migratory path in an attempt to incorporate the wider-than- daily labor market into the movement’s sphere of influence. During this same presentation, when challenged by a Sandinista cadre who asked an apparently simple question (“What became of the people who used to be janitors?”), JfJ acknowledged their organizing had not extended to the former workers. JfJ vowed to expand its Southern California activities and reach out to ex-janitors in the community, who, as previously noted, are mostly African Americans. This project could well revive forgotten labor and antiracist struggles.

86. Laura Pulido, “The Geography of Militant Labor Organizing in Los Angeles,” Paper delivered at the meetings of the Association for Economic and Social Analysis, December 7, 1996, University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

87. Martin Anderson Dossier Secreto: Argentina’s Desaparecidos and the Myth of the “Dirty War.Boulder, CO: Westview. 1993; Marguerite Guzman Bouvard. Revolutionizing Motherhood: Mothers of the Future Plaza de Mayo, Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, Inc., 1994; Nora Amelia Femenia, “Argentina’s Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo: The Mourning Process from Junta to Democracy,” Feminist Studies 13.1 (1987): 9–18; Jo Fisher, Mothers of Disappeared, Boston: South End Press 1989; Matilde Mellibovsky. The Story of the Circle of Love Over Death: Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, Willimantic, CT: Curbstone Press, 1997; Emma Sepúlveda (ed.), We, Chile: Personal Testimonies from the Chilean ArpilleristasFalls Church, VA: Azul Editions 1996.

88. Barbara Harlow, Barred: Women’s Writing and Political Detention, Hanover: Wesleyan University Press/University Press of New England. 1992; Maria Teresa Tula. Hear My TestimonyBoston: South End Press. 1994.

89. Fisher, Mothers of Disappeared; Calvin Sims, “The Rock, Unyielding, of the Plaza de Mayo,” New York Times, March 2, 1996.

90. Paulo Freire, Pedagogy for the OppressedNew York: Seabury 1970.

91. Allen Feldman, Formations of violenceChicago: University of Chicago Press 1991, 109.

92. See, for examples, Peter W. Greenwood et al., Three Strikes and You’re Out; James Q. Wilson, Richard Herrnstein Crime and Human NatureNew York: Simon and Schuster 1985.

93. See also David Anderson The Politics of Hysteria and Crime, New York: Times Books, 1995; Charles Derber, The Wilding of America: How Greed and Violence are Eroding our Nation’s CharacterNew York: St. Martins, 1996; Carol Stabile, “Media’s Crime Wave: Legitimating the Prison Industrial Complex.” Paper delivered at Behind bars: Prisons and Communities in America1996. George Mason University.

94. Hall, “Cultural Identity and Diaspora”; see also Peter Jackson, “Changing Ourselves: A Geography of Position,” in R. J. Johnston (ed.), Geography’s Challenge, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1993, 198–214.