As a shop steward for the APWU (American Postal Workers Union), I have been on the front lines of protecting workers from their employers. The shop steward is the liaison between management and workers and is the workers’ first line of defense against employer abuses. During my many years of service, I was occasionally asked; “Why do you keep beating your head up against the wall?” My answer was always; “If I stopped, the wall would fall and crush me and every one of you.” Of course, I certainly had my successes, but there were also grievances that I was filing (and winning) over and over again. It was simply cheaper for management to intentionally violate the union contract and pay out pennies on the dollar on the few grievances that made it to arbitration.
Adding to my answer I would always say, “… and if enough of us beat our heads up against the wall, we could knock it down in the other direction.” That’s because in solidarity, there is strength. Our power lies mainly in our numbers and our level of involvement. Therefore, growing our numbers and finding new ways to encourage involvement should be our primary focus if we really want to push the wall in the other direction.
I recently ran across an old unmarked audio tape of one of our union leaders on a 2003 radio broadcast (yes, 2003 is old). Many of the same issues were being discussed then that we are still fighting today. In fact, many of the issues go back decades; Income inequality, union busting, immigration reform, and environmental issues (just to name a few) are all as relevant today as they were then. So what are we doing wrong? Why do we continue to fight the same battles over and over again?
I think it’s fair to say that some issues just take years or decades to change. It takes years for prejudices to fade or for an injustice to rise to a level that can’t be ignored. But what I suspect is really happening is that there are just not enough of us doing what needs to be done, or maybe those of us doing it are not doing it in a coordinated and effective manner.
There are thousands of progressive leaning groups and organizations, each with their own goals and agendas, yet often they share common issues. This is where we can work together to build a stronger catalyst for change. Before this can happen, we need to build relationships, open channels of communication, work together, and strategize together wherever and whenever possible. We must build bridges around shared issues if we really want to create change.
One way to start is to look to the current active members of your union or organization. Many of those members probably belong to other organizations as well. Through these members you can seek out those other organizations that support similar or compatible issues and start to build relationships. Another way is to get involved with groups like AWAKE The State or other progressive alliances that are coalitions of many different similarly minded organizations.
We need to build these alliances, work together where we can, and agree to disagree when necessary or we will just keep beating our heads up against the wall, instead of pushing the wall down.