In Defense of Resistance and Identity (or, Why Queer Labor is Important)

I’ve been reflecting a lot about the validity of my research interests. In a world in which “first-world” bombs destroy “third-world” villages, where children starve at home and abroad, where women are killed for infidelity, why am I so dedicated to the labor movement?  And more pressingly, why am I interested in queer workers and sex workers? Inherent in the movement is a position of privilege (everyone has a job in this situation, at some point), and inherent in queer/sex-positive politics is a belief in the importance of non-normative modalities of sexuality, a struggle many would say is low on the proverbial “hierarchy of oppressions.”

I get discouraged when I read about other academic’s research on things that are understood as more pressing. I avoided the Sociology department because of my disdain for quantitative methods and the absence of room for beacoup theory, but I often get jealous of my sociologist peers who seem constantly to be immersed in research that is community-based and immediately relevant.

But there are moments when I remember exactly why I do what I do, why I find labor organizing to be one of the most important jobs in the world, and why I believe queerness is a modality that offers immense political promise. As other posts have noted, we’re attempting to organize the graduate student workers where I go to school, and this past weekend I attended an organizing conference for unionized and attempting-to-unionize grad workers. I sat through engaging panels such as: Struggles and Victories (where we heard compelling accounts from the U Illinois strikers), Confronting Department Closings (there is talk at my U about merging “ethnic studies” departments into one entity—so a sure-fire way to further decrease enrollment numbers from minority students. awesome.), Leadership Development (make things task-oriented!), Organizing Research Assistants (most unions biggest obstacle), and Campus-Community-Union Relationships (this stuff always makes me warm and fuzzy; got to talk about queer/labor alliances, what more could I ask for?). We also had organizer training in the field; we talked to RAs about coming out to support a fees campaign rally. Between panel-ing and workshopping, I met and bonded with my colleagues from various Midwest universities, where we talked about our own stories of struggle and empowerment. This was a crowd that made referential union jokes, and had spontaneous bursts of singing “Solidarity Forever.” It felt energizing and inspiring, and also like home. It felt like community.

In the affective blossomings that occurred this weekend, I was reminded of the common denominator that all labor movement efforts have in common—empowered resistance and solidarity. I am drawn to study, organize around, and write about resistance because to not do so would be to affirm a fictional weakness of the oppressed. Certainly it might seem more pressing to write about those who are the most oppressed and abused, to relish in their sorrows, to show numbers that say “See! See how much they suffer!,” but that ignores the agency of the oppressed, the ability for the oppressed to create change in their own lives and the world. And the labor movement offers the perfect lens to show the promise of organized resistance. I am drawn to telling the true stories of the empowered marginalized because it offers hope and alters the detrimental discourse of powerlessness projected upon the disenfranchised.

That is not to say it is not first important to stress the ways the working-class, queer folks, and other marginalized populations are destroyed insidiously by the system. And that’s also not to say that every marginalized group has the resources to organize, or are even in a circumstance where organization is possible. This legitimate critique of a glamorized labor movement challenges me on many levels, and I try to specify, when telling these stories of resistance, why different populations are able to do what they are doing. But this critique also speaks to why I find queer identity as an integral element of the labor movement. Kitty Krupat and Patrick McCreery speak to this in their book Out at Work: Building a Gay-Labor Alliance (2001). They explain that they “stopped talking about the intersections between class and social identity and started thinking about social identity as fundamental to class, and [they] began to think about the potential of an alliance between the labor and LGBT movements” (xviii). In an essay in the same book, Amber Hollibaugh further illustrates the importance of making queer bodies intelligible:
“If people are terrified of speaking out, of ever articulating the particularities of their own lives, they won’t sign a union card. They won’t speak up when there’s a grievance. They won’t shut a line down. Their spirit is broken precisely in the place where they need to have a voice.” (p.61)

My activism and scholarship are a reflection of my belief in the above quote. I believe in the power of an organized working-class, but I don’t believe that a real transformation of society can occur if some bodies are made invisible, or articulated as less important, or deviant, or “a distraction.”

A few weeks ago I was in a conversation with a group of fellow activists and we started sharing stories about our first forays into political activism. My standard narrative answer to this question usually involves a description of my first encounter with Food Not Bombs, as it was the foundation for my understanding of radical politics. However, a memory from further back came to me, and I shared how my mom told me that we were going to boycott Cracker Barrel because “they were not nice to their gay and black workers.” I must’ve been only six or seven years old, but I remember learning and understanding that word “boycott,” and I remember feeling determined to never stepping foot inside that restaurant. Looking back, it makes sense that my first experience with exercising political agency would be around a matter that concerned labor and identity. And as a queer, working-class female, it makes sense that I still find these issues, as Judith Butler would say, “as crucial as bread.”

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7 thoughts on “In Defense of Resistance and Identity (or, Why Queer Labor is Important)

  1. i am curious where your research is going in terms of internal organizing and queer politics/ID/culture. you obviously know where i am going with this. although i echo your sentiments about the conference, i am wondering what you would thus then say about how not “queer” the whole thing was. our joint comment to the AFT big wigs, the dismissal of human rights as an accurate term for diversity, etc. i am reading this post more of you being super stoked on your research goals but it is also begging for some critical commentary. of course i am always looking for that dark cloud moment. funny enough, all my research thus far has been very sun shiny and highlighting potential rather than the problems.
    also, i am wondering how you deal with the fact that grad workers are very privileged. we can’t simply align ourselves with other unions that do physical labor, literally die on the job, etc. i just get a weird twinge in my brain when we call ourselves proletariats. b/c most of us are not.
    just some thoughts. i think about this stuff all the time, obvs.

    • oh, no totally agree. my status on facebook about ‘training to liberate the proletariat’ was tongue-in-cheek. i do not feel like a prole. i am less interested in talking about grad organizing in my own research (and may never even mention it outside of the obligatory feminist biographical introduction), because i am more interested in workers in service and labor industries. i was fuzzy about the conference in the post for the sake of the theme of the post (a defense), but my research is certainly focused on the *lack* of the embrace of ID politics in the labor movement.

      in terms of how i’ll apply this to our campaign: this weekend i obviously stressed the difference between gay white man agenda, and queer agenda, and how it is unlikely a trans clause would be accepted on a health care portion of the contract, etc. i will be vocal about this stuff, but i also just had a really interesting convo with eli v. about trans insurance status that we should talk about in person. otherwise, how will i apply this to grad student organizing? queer flashmobs of course.

      but yeah, the sunshiney-ness of this post is only because i like to not feel worthless sometimes. i clearly know how to be critical, and the reason i study queers in labor is because 90% of union people i know are shut off to ID politics.

  2. I also recall hearing stories from Paul about you during convocation your senior year of high school. I’ve always been envious of how you’re able to stick yourself into “danger” for what you believe.

  3. lolz i didn’t even catch your FB post. but unfortunately that working class rhetoric is seriously used all the time in grad school unionizing (U Chicago as of late). ack, i know you can be critical i was just curious what your critique was. “say more, say more” my brain exclaimed.
    anyway, all sounds good. seems like an awesome project obviously and you are already on all my future syllabi.

  4. Pingback: Global Feminist Link Love: May 24 – 30 « Gender Across Borders

  5. hi R,

    Great post, very thought provoking. I think your work is super interesting and more relevant than most people’s, so I think if anything you should feel arrogant, not shy about your work. (I’m totally serious.) I also want to say, I raelly like that you want to take a stand for identity politics (I hate that this term has become like a swear word for some people who are ignorant of its history) but do so in a way that keeps a firm emphasis on class.

    If you don’t mind, here’s where I’m coming from on this stuff. I think workplace organizing and the labor movement matter in part because the workplace is a key site where divisions in the working class can be broken down, because people don’t choose who they work alongside. I also think that in a capitalist society, struggle at the waged point of production is a major fulcrum for pressuring social change. And I think the types of experiences involved in workplace organizing (and other mass organizing too) are potentially transformative – people can start to see structures of exploitation differently, overcome divisions like I said (when I organized janitors initially they were divided up into social cliques by race and gender, through the process a lot of relationships of trust were built up by working and fighting together), and people start to get a sense of their own (our class’s) collective power.

    One other thing – about grad students as privileged. I don’t really agree. I’m of two minds really. On the one hand, I don’t think we’re a particularly objectively important sector – we’re not particularly powerful in the objective workings of the economy (in the way that, say, longshore workers are) and we’re not likely to be a sector who leads or inspires other sectors (in the way that, say, the black working class was for a lot of people in the mid 20th century). On the other hand, we do work for a living, we work long hours for little pay, less than the institution gets from us. I’m supporting a family on my salary, and the time I spend at work comes out of time I could spend being with my partner or my daughter, or doing necessary household work. The rest of the men in my family are mexican american, my father’s an electrician, my youngest brother is a food service delivery drive, my other brother works in a metal fabrication factory, and my mother is a teacher. I have the lowest income of anyone in the family, by quite a bit. So I don’t see the privileges. I think higher up on the food chain in academia there are a lot of privileges etc, but I think at our rung I don’t really see privileges. (I *do* see a frustrating proportion of colleagues with parental support, but that’s another story, I think working class graduate assistants are not particularly privileged *as grad assistants*).
    On the other other hand… I dunno, this stuff is complicated. I think there’s a weird and super offputting interplay in some academic settings between “we’re totally unique! and crucially important!” (I think the Edu-Factory people do this) and “we’re just like every other worker, exactly the same!” in a way that fails to take into account important divisions etc. I think one of the end results of both is that this stuff reinforces divisions in the workplace – grads talk to grads, few relationships with people in other job classes (except faculty), etc.

    I’d love to talk more w/ you about all this in person some time, and would love to read anyhting you’re writing!

    take care,
    Nate

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