Inside and Outside

This past Saturday the Hotel Workers of Local 2 (UNITE-HERE) reached some kind of tentative agreement with the 14 multinational hotel chains that had locked them out, allowing them to go back to work for 60 days, pending further negotiations. Friends of mine have been organizing a Sunday evening flying picket for the past few weeks, and had a direct action planned for Saturday afternoon, which was called off in the face of the news. The union itself had been rather difficult and resistant to the solidarity and help coming from the motley crew of radicals, trots, anarchists, and labor activists, highlighting the ever-present dilemma of who is ‘inside’ and who is ‘outside’ a social conflict. I had my own misgivings about the direct action planned for Saturday, but had planned to help in a support capacity.

I was doing it with the notion that I personally need to learn how to better plug in to other people’s campaigns, but also to withhold my own reservations and contribute my body and energy without having to totally approve of the thinking or planning of an action. Not that I’m ready to suspend my judgement entirely, but I trust my friends, and want them to “succeed” in their efforts.

Those efforts, providing support and solidarity and a bit of backbone to the somewhat listless picket lines of the locked-out hotel workers, seem obviously worthwhile. But it also feels strangely wrong to be launching this support without an explicit request from someone who is on those lines, who is in the midst of this lockout as their own. I have a long-term aversion to leftist entryism, a typical Trotskyist disease in the last decades. Part of what felt right to me about most of my own projects over the years, whether Processed World, Critical Mass, or what have you, has been that they are actions and efforts that have arisen directly out of my own experience, my own desires, my own sense of what’s worth fighting for (or about)…

That sense of a personal stake is the notion of “inside” that feels missing as friends ask me to come to a flying picket to support a lockout or strike. But it’s also true, as the previous post on this blog indicates, that in the social factory, we are all part of a broad swath of the working population that has a tentative and precarious relationship to any given workplace or wage-labor gig. In other words, we are all ‘inside’ the cognitariat or the precariat, regardless of our momentary employment deal, wage level, or living conditions. So I need to adjust my sense of inside/outside to accommodate this new, more broadly defined sense of class reality.

There is no longer an outside. But that doesn’t mean that the union stewards and bureaucrats don’t still claim a strong ‘ownership’ over their union’s fight. It doesn’t mean that the workers on the line, mostly immigrants, mostly people for whom the hotel job is a really good gig with benefits and protection, mostly people who want the full-time job to last until they’re ready to retire, don’t see a bunch of young radicals, leftists, anarchists, etc., coming to “support” them as outsiders.

Because right now, the divisions between those of us identifying with this larger political and class sensibility and the people working these hotel jobs (for example) are pretty stark. They are primarily cultural, and they are rooted in daily lives, assumptions, politics, hopes and fears, family, practically everything. Clearly we are part of a growing fraction of the population ready for major change, already living a life that rejects a lot of the assumptions of this society. But it is precisely that rejection that makes us look like weirdos, that frightens people who are anxiously trying to hold on to the trappings of the American way of life.

It feels a part of the low-intensity culture war. We feel invisible, and often we are. But actually we represent in our lives and choices an alternative that instills fear and loathing in a lot of people. You can see it occasionally on Critical Mass when a motorist cowers in their vehicle, frightened and/or enraged at the flagrant rejection of their values and assumptions represented by the bicyclists passing by.

In a case like this lockout, a lot of people tried to make connections on the line with rank-and-file workers. I don’t know much about how successful that was, but I’d like to know. In any case, I give credit to my friends who made this effort. It’s absolutely true that we have to reach out from our self-referential bubble to begin interacting in meaningful ways that express real solidarity, not condescension. And what’s really at the heart of that admonition is that they are us! It’s silly and self-defeating to hold on to a sense of difference and separation that is borne largely out of consumer choices. We are all facing a mad mad world, and we are all making difficult and unhappy compromises all the time. It’s not about hypocrisy. It’s about recognizing a shared predicament: we’re all trapped, and the way out is still foggy and vague. But it surely passes through the kinds of efforts made to support the locked-out members of Local 2, regardless of how their stewards and officers felt about it.

2 comments to Inside and Outside

  • yer host

    Very sensible suggestions. The long-term approach implied here is sorely lacking. And moreover, an approach that builds relationships, that credits the students as intelligent and natural allies, would be SO refreshing! Have you sent this along to any of the Local 2 organizers, or even our friends who are on the so-called ‘outside’?

  • boz

    Did you see the article in the Guardian about how Local 2 is considering retaliating against the California Culinary Academy for the Academy’s willingness to help bring in scabs? Apparently the Academy advertised for replacement workers. The Local is pissed because they already do a favor for the Academy – they let students come work in the hotels for internships, even if the students aren’t union members. Now the union is considering backing out of that arrangement.

    I wish they’d use their leverage for something more useful. If 18-year-old chefs-in-training don’t understand labor solidarity, is it better to kick them to the curb? Or to teach them?

    What I’d like to see: at least, the union should demand that the school offer classes in labor history, allow union recruiters onto campus for free at every job fair and other recruiting event. Better yet, there should be a union local for the students themselves. Membership dues should be low, given that students don’t make much money. That way they would get involved in the union, get the newsletters and e-mails, meet the other union members, and end up with some sense of solidarity for the next strike.


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