What would it look like if organizing was so internalized in a society that people spontaneously took direct action in the moment of the injustice? What if this was so widespread that unscrupulous power-holders felt compelled to do right because of the imminent accountability?
I understand that there are places in the world where this is much closer to being a reality than it is in the U.S. I wish I had a lot more stories like this one to tell—a brief glimpse into the beauty and power of such a society.
Lucy paid her workers with checks from an unregistered, phantom cleaning business that only existed to insulate the larger cleaning corporation (for whom she was the manager) from legal responsibility for violating labor law. One day, she asked a group of her workers to reapply for their jobs with “new information” or they would be fired. It was our understanding that she was mandating the workers to bring in stolen identities so that she could bill her clients for twice the number of workers than actually did the labor.
One afternoon, I got a call from Mayra, a woman in her early twenties who did not want to be complicit in this. She had heard about Fuerza Laboral on the radio and wanted to know what her options were, since Lucy had said that night was the deadline to bring the new applications. I couldn’t imagine what we could do with only a few hours before the shift started, but something in her voice compelled me to drive the 25 minutes from our office in Central Falls to her house in Providence.
I sat down at the kitchen table with her and her husband. I told her what Lucy was doing was illegal, but that labor law is so weak and departments so underfunded and overworked that no official was going to hold Lucy accountable—at least not for a long time. I explained a little about how Fuerza uses direct action, but how it really requires everyone to be prepared and agreed on tactics. Mayra was in tears over the stress of the situation and the looming job loss. Grasping for something, I suggested: if she already was set on not being complicit to Lucy’s demand, why not talk to some co-workers upon arriving and see who else agreed, to have some strength in numbers when she refused?
Well, she took it a lot farther than that. I got a call the next day from Mayra. Because of the trust other workers had in her, which she had built over time, she succeeded, in a matter of minutes, in getting the whole shift crew to have a sit-down strike, with brooms and mops across their knees, refusing to work. When Lucy came over to them and asked what was going on, Mayra said, “We know what you’re doing is illegal and none of us will do it. We’ve organized with Fuerza Laboral and they have our backs.”
Reportedly, Lucy began tearing at her hair. “Fuerza Laboral! How do they know everywhere I am?” You see, Lucy had several crews cleaning different buildings, and we had been organizing with an entirely different one for several weeks on the issue of wage theft, and had protested both Lucy’s home and went with a group of her workers to sit in the front pew at church while she received an award, sweating profusely with anticipation at what we would do. Mayra and her crew knew none of these workers—it was sheer coincidence that she called us at this particular moment. But the organizing on different fronts had saturated Lucy’s mind, and Lucy found herself continuously anxious about where her workers would show up next.
Everyone in Mayra’s crew kept their jobs without having to be complicit in Lucy’s game. If we had a week to prepare in our organization I doubt we could have engineered such an effective action as they did all by themselves.
Organizers like to think of ourselves as bold revolutionaries, but the reality is that no one is bolder than the people directly affected by an injustice who have had enough. Ideally, organizers create a space for this boldness to blossom into action, but sometimes we get in the way; instead of organizing, we organizationalize. And while we need real community-owned organizations–sustainable, strong bodies that can win new victories upon the foundations of old ones, our organizations don’t need to own, or even participate in, every victory.
I come back to Mayra’s story for inspiration whenever change feels unattainable. What can I be doing each day to build trust, build a shared vision and build relationships so that when conditions present themselves, we can spring into action? May we all live into our collective power.