Reflections on organizing for social and economic justice in college
24th September 2012 · 0 Comments
Editor’s Note: John “Hunter” Deely, a San Antonio native who recently passed away at the age of 22, was a former Tulane student activist. In one of his final essays, Hunter talked about the hard lessons learned from the campus struggle and is brutally honest about the challenges and obstacles whites face in confronting white privilege and racism as they strive to promote social, economic and racial justice in the U.S. and beyond. This is Part II of a three-part series of what he wrote about.
By John “Hunter” Deely
Sodexo was holding captive audience meetings with its employees, where workers are required during their work hours to listen to representatives from the company talk about the evils of unions and basically intimidate them. We held signs outside of those meetings and gave legal rights pamphlets to the workers as they came out of the meetings. The police came out in force, and threatened several Emory students who were in attendance with arrest for criminal trespassing. Later that month we organized a rally with about 250 people that went through the cafeteria, where several workers presented Sodexo’s management with a list of demands. Barbara Ehrenreich, who was visiting campus for unrelated reasons, spoke to the group. The protest was unregistered and the school administration had no idea it was coming. After that, they became aware of our presence and decided to shut us down. The same night that action was carried out, my friend L received a strange e-mail from someone she had never met or heard of before asking to meet with her and only her on campus that same night at around 7:30. She refused and replied that she was not interested in being intimidated and that any meetings would have to be with a larger group of representatives of the Tulane University Solidarity Committee. We drew up our idea for a “Labor Code of Conduct” which would regulate the treatment of subcontracted workers on campus, based on a template provided by USAS, and sent this to the University President, Scott Cowen, with a letter asking him to work on implementing it. We never received a response.
We organized a worker appreciation barbecue, which we registered through all the proper channels. We were charged $600 so that extra police could monitor us, because the administration was “worried about violence.”
Later that month, the workers voted to go on strike. We organized students to support them, and the morning of April 23, 50 workers—all but a handful on duty at the time—walked out of work and formed a picket line. Dozens of students joined in throughout the day. By 3 p.m. that same day, myself, a sophomore at the time, and three graduating seniors received letters charging us through the university system with abusive or disorderly conduct; intimidation and harassment; failure to comply with university officials; and infringing the free speech of others. Needless to say, all of that was completely ridiculous. I could go into detail about the shitshow that came out of our series of hearings on these charges, when the seniors were told they would not be allowed to graduate, but suffice to say that it was a stalling and intimidation tactic on the part of the administration, and eventually we were all given letters of reprimand on the charge of “failure to comply” because we had not properly registered the event. We later learned that the President of the University had called the student affairs office and specifically told them to charge us with those charges, a huge violation of his legal role at the university.
At this point we were running high. We were full of wild energy and it seemed like something was going to change. But that isn’t what happened. Most of the student leaders graduated that semester and the following fall we regrouped. One student who worked in the university archives found information about a group from the ‘60s called the Tulane University Peace Action Center. Because a lot of people had a negative view of TUSC, we decided to change the group’s name: TUPAC. That acronym, of course, spells out the name of the famous rapper, and while I felt a twinge of uncertainty about it, I still wasn’t able to articulate why it was wrong for a group of privileged, white students and a privileged, white university to appropriate that name for our purposes.
It was a profound example of the deeply internalized White Supremacy that all of us still had within us, which also manifested in a lack of communication with the workers we were supposedly representing. They had caught on to the duplicity of the union much earlier than we did, but the SEIU had set it up so that we could not really communicate with large groups of workers without their mediation. Furthermore, the willingness of the union to put workers in harm’s way of losing their jobs was completely exploitative and demonstrated that their concern was growing their strength first, worrying about the well-being of the workers second. I won’t go into as much detail about the ensuing year as I did about the start of the campaign. There was another strike, there were more actions, there were more letters and delegations. We began to focus more on the Labor Code of Conduct than the union per se, which was a good idea. We kept drawing up new strategy charts. But always, these strategies extended for a year, at most. We couldn’t see beyond that. We continued to fail at communicating effectively with more than a handful of workers. We allowed one or two students to take control of the group without effective transparency, and they allowed themselves to be manipulated by the racist and short-sighted organizing tactics of USAS. Ultimately, the workers lost steam, they were sick of being treated like pawns and being put in harm’s way by larger forces without any guarantee that they were going to win their fight. Sometime in the fall of 2011, SEIU cut a deal with Sodexo to end their campaign. That deal did not include a union for Tulane’s food workers. They were left cold. SEIU just packed up and left, and all the workers who had stuck their necks out, stood up to their management, and given a huge amount of energy to their cause were left without any legal protection from retaliation, with their same lack of benefits, low wages, and abusive treatment by their management. It was a disgusting, and it is an example of everything that is wrong with the Organized Labor Movement in this country today. Unions are run on the model of corporations. They dehumanize their members in order to maximize profits. Now tell me, how is a corporate model of organizing ever going to put a dent in corporate, white supremacist power? It ain’t, plain and simple, and anyone who thinks otherwise is deluding themselves. Major unions are never going to provide fundamental change for the workers of this nation. After that, we said to hell with the union, and continued to push for a Labor Code of Conduct. But I in particular had failed to internalize the lessons of the People’s Institute—I had taken on too much of a leadership role myself without developing other leaders I had not been willing to center the discussion around racism for fear of alienating white people—and when I had to take a step back from the organization in order to get my stuff together to graduate, it fell apart. TUPAC was disbanded and the campaign indefinitely suspended.
Thankfully, a stronger, more thoughtful, and more well-established campus organization—Students Organizing Against Racism—has kept the memory of this time alive and is trying to work on continuing the push for workers’ rights on campus that is truly anti-racist; that works in solidarity with the workers rather than on the White Savior development model; and that recognizes the fact that change is not going to happen in a semester, or even in four years. It takes a long time, and dedication. We have 500 years of history in which white people and people of color have been told they cannot work together to make the world better. But that really is what it’s about. To take a thought from bell hooks, we have to remember that white people are not exploited or oppressed by racism, but that there are many ways it hurts them—spiritually, morally, psychologically. Before activists can effect any real change, they will have to take the time to confront their own role in the structures of racism.
So if I can boil down my experience to a short list of tips for college students who want to organize for social justice on their campus—particularly on campuses, such as Tulane, where the racial divide is blatant and pronounced—it would be this:
1. Always remain autonomous. Do not let large outside organizations control your campaign.
2. Learn about racism. Learn about how to be anti-racist. These things don’t happen overnight. Be patient, but understand that this always has to be at the forefront of your organizing, because racism is the fundamental principle on which injustice in this country is built.
3. Be accountable. Never speak for people who haven’t given you permission to do so and told you what to say. Remember that you are a part of the oppression you are fighting, and you have to fight it within yourself as well as outside yourself.
4. Have principles. Draw up principles as a group from the beginning, and stick to them. Embody those principles both in your outward activism, as well as in the organizational structure of your group.
5. Learn to communicate. Learn to listen. Learn that you are never the most important person in the room, or the community. If you are a student fighting for social justice on your campus, then you are in an enormous position of privilege. This is magnified for white people, but even students of color are in a position of privilege relative workers of color on their campuses. Privilege destroys communication. Breaking down the barriers created by racism and classism takes a lot of time and effort, but until you are intentional about doing so, you are only going to make things worse.
6. Don’t think in the short term. Our culture is based around short-term thinking: How will we turn a profit the next quarter? How will I pass my classes this semester? But the short-term is not where social change happens. Recognize that the fundamental structures of racism and injustice on your campus are not going to change in your time there. Focus on building groups and organizations that can sustain themselves over the years and students come and go. Make the organization stronger than the personalities it is made up of. Make sure it will still be there after graduation. Take time to celebrate each other as people. When you plan your strategy, include strategies for one, two, four, 10 and 20 years. If you can’t think that far ahead, then you aren’t thinking clearly enough to be organizing shit.
7. Remember that learning to organize, to be anti-racist, and to think in the long term are processes that you will never complete.
8. Be willing to adapt.
9. Never give up.
This article originally published in the September 24, 2012 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.