Some reflections from a first-time organizer

Lily Green is a young worker organizing her workplace (the campaign is not yet public). In June, she attended the IWW’s Organizing Summit in Seattle, along with workers from eighteen other active campaigns. I asked her to write a reflection on the experience, and on her campaign. — Marianne Garneau

I started organizing about 9 months ago and still feel very new to the game. Our campaign is young. We are in the process of working towards bringing our fellow workers together for our first sickout and, hopefully, our first win.

Divisions in the workplace

At the Organizing Summit, we talked about how hierarchies, however arbitrary, are used to divide workers. This phenomenon is at once saddening and comical. We humans are so woefully invalidated and stripped of our self-worth by our mundane, dehumanizing, repetitive jobs that when the boss picks us out of the pack and says, “Hey, you’re slightly better. Here’s a random, meaningless title, more responsibility and no pay raise,” we leap at the opportunity to distinguish ourselves from the other workers even if all it means is taking on more responsibility and work.

It’s the result of alienation in the workplace. We, the workers, don’t see our humanness represented in the products of our labor or in the culture of the workplace. The part of the self that seeks community, true self-expression and collective purpose is completely starved. It’s therefore natural that the moment someone feeds it with a measly accolade, we gobble it up.

I recognize this experience from high school. I felt an almost total loss of self in the brutal monotony of tests and lectures. I would often fantasize about somehow changing the system, but to actually realize that dream seemed so far and unattainable to me. Instead I chose to sink deeper into the drudgery of school and studies. I was burnt out on a soul level.

Two roads to burnout

I think that’s why I ultimately gravitated towards organizing. It was a way to finally realize that dream of changing things. But that too can lead to burnout.

As organizers, the responsibility of maintaining the momentum of a campaign lies almost exclusively on our shoulders. The burden is heavy but the desire to realize change keeps us ever moving forward. It was nice to see that it wasn’t just me who felt this struggle. Burnout was a topic that we talked a lot about at the Organizing Summit. How pernicious the various manifestations of burnout can be! I find that it can really creep up on me. Sometimes, it manifests as anger, deep-seeded rage even. Other times I feel completely exhausted. The Summit helped me to admit that I was deeply tired from the organizing work. I hadn’t realized that on my own, operating in my workplace bubble, riding on the adrenaline of the campaign.

I’ve now realized that neglecting your dreams and realizing them are both roads to burnout, the latter of course being more fulfilling.

The biggest tool the 2019 Summit gave me was how to recognize burnout within myself and take care of it. It’s a fundamental part of the sustainability of the campaign. Recognizing the small successes can be useful: it’s important to remember that small wins are still wins. As long as celebratory period doesn’t last so long that the momentum cools. I also understand that taking care of myself must be on the to-do list. Fellow workers will relate to me better when I am present and in a general state of well-being. The first step of better self-care is to honestly tune into how I’m feeling psychologically and emotionally. The second step is to be more realistic with the amount of work I am able to take on. I think we are fortunate to be at a point in the campaign where more people are agitated and involved, and a larger group of people are willing to share the load.

A trickier, sneakier fear

Weeks after the summit, I’m still thinking about how I can make my campaign more sustainable, how I can balance taking care of myself with maintaining the momentum. The unique workplace challenge I face is that I’m organizing colleagues who are also, for the most part, my friends. I worked closely with these people and talked to them on a fairly regular basis, anyway. In the beginning, organizing the workplace became an extension of my social life, but then the time I used to take to decompress became muddled with workplace stress. It’s a huge emotional labor, listening and working through friends’ fears, concerns, frustrations.

The primary issue my organizing partner and I have been working through is the fear around the sickout. A lot of my coworkers are also afraid of losing their job. That’s a fairly straightforward fear to address. But a lot of my fellow workers are scared about the emotional repercussions the sickout will have on the bosses. As well as having an intimate relationship with our coworkers, we all have a close relationship to our bosses. Our bosses used to be one of us. They used to be on our level and still oftentimes behave like they still are. It’s a confusing dynamic that lacks boundaries. This creates a trickier, sneakier fear to address. It’s difficult not to be swayed by this when I empathize with them and do care about the bosses on a certain, personal level.

An exhausting virtuosity

I’m grateful for the Summit for completely opening up my conception of what it means to be an organizer. I have a larger field to identify with. I really find organizing to be an art in that the methodology of an organizer synthesizes intuition and technique. Organizers do an enormous amount of information processing and synthesizing. There is a lot of trial and error. They are shape-shifters. In addition to working as the catalyst for change, they are also the resident workplace therapist, the trailblazer, the record-keeper, the confidant, the strategist, the caretaker, the researcher, the model employee. Organizers wear so many hats. It’s an exhausting virtuosity.