Intersectionality and Breaking Classism

The past month working with Interfaith Worker Justice has been a reminder that creating change is slow, grinding, and often unglamorous work.  One of my primary goals has been to explore community organizing from a labor and economic justice perspective, the strengths and weaknesses of labor organizing in Boston in relation to my experience in climate organizing, and building bridges between the two movements.

I think that the climate movement does many things well—it has a lot of energy and momentum around youth right now; the horizontal, democratic nature of a lot of its organizing allows people to take initiative and become leaders; and a shift away from rote protests and rallies towards creative tactics, civil disobediences, and direct actions resonate more powerfully with the public and media. However, for all its innovation and energy, a major critique of climate change activists is that it is a homogenous group—white, upper-middle class—partly because climate change is seen as a “privileged” issue, especially when compared to violence, poverty, mass incarceration, racism, etc. However, climate justice sees the intersections of race, class, and the environment; those most vulnerable to climate change and environmental degradation are marginalized communities, i.e. low-income, minority groups. And to build a movement strong enough to take on climate change and the fossil fuel industry, we need to make these intersections clear, create cross-connections in struggles for justice, and support communities with the most at stake from climate change.

Photo I took/edited of an action at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office during an action where immigration and labor organizers joined together.
Photo I took/edited at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office during an action where immigration and labor organizers joined together–an example of intersectionality and movements creating synergy.

This is where my time at Interfaith Worker Justice comes into play. Every day is filled with meetings to plan campaigns and actions, as well as participating in actions themselves. My work has narrowed to focusing on the Raise Up Massachusetts campaign—raising the minimum wage and establishing an earned sick time standard for all workers in MA; the Bangladesh Solidarity Network, which is focused on getting apparel companies such as Gap and Walmart to sign a Fire and Safety Agreement that would improve the safety for Bangladesh garment workers, and participating in numerous pickets and rallies in support of various workers trying to unionize with a fair process without fear of retaliation.

My time with IWJ has been useful in seeing and understanding how the labor movement has been successful in building a strong, diverse group. Labor organizers see their work and thus frame their issues around class and race, resonating strongly among the constituents it needs to raise. However, I’ve learned that messaging that focuses on class and race only goes so far in building community support and legitimacy if without an intentionality to incorporate marginalized people into organizing. At work I have picked up on how labor organizers intentionally reach out to a diversity of people to not only attend events but become part of the organizing process. I am starting to pick up on various habits and incorporate them into my organizing in order to be more inclusive. For example, it is important to pick up the phone and not rely solely on the Internet (which many low-income people do not have 24/7 access to). For a week of actions against deportations of undocumented immigrants, I spent hours calling housing authorities, immigration groups, civil rights groups, workers centers—any organization whose constituents could be those impacted and thus would be most passionate about deportations. In addition, we made sure at the week of actions against deportations that almost all of the speakers were those directly affected by deportations. It is useful to establish relationships with other organizations that deal directly with communities not only to collaborate with but also to utilize as a resource when outreaching—I have been discussing with various labor organizers about my own climate work and working to establish contacts that can then be later used for outreach and collaboration. Organizers also make sure to plan meetings and events at times when people are not working and at locations accessible by public transportation and nearby or, better yet, in low-income communities. Going through work every day with an intentionality on classism and racism and picking up nuisances of how the labor movement effectively resonates with marginalized communities will be extremely useful as I continue organizing on Brandeis campus and beyond, irrespective of the issue.


Picket at Le Meridien hotel over the company's failure to allow workers to organize (Cambridge, MA).
Picket at Le Meridien hotel over the company’s failure to allow workers to organize (Cambridge, MA).

I learned from some labor organizers of a carbon tax bill in MA that people were upset with due to the regressive nature of how it distributed tax-cuts. Effectively, this bill would put a divide between many well-intentioned environmentalists and labor activists who would have to spend crucial resources and energy into defeating the carbon tax bill, hurting both movements. I have been discussing with various environmental organizers about the regressive nature of the carbon tax and trying to set up a meeting among environmental and labor organizers to meet with the grassroots organization behind the ballot initiative of the carbon tax bill to see how the bill can be revised to avoid these internal conflicts.

More generally, I have been working on crafting connections between the two movements to avoid scenarios such as the carbon tax bill that could have been avoided if there were communication; currently I am working on getting together a meeting of student organizers across different issues (labor, environmental, immigration) to seek out synergy and unity.  I am excited to see where my connections in the labor movement take me as I continue organizing around climate and environmental justice in the future; I especially hope to create collaborative efforts between the two issues, perhaps first on-campus to help revitalize the activist scene.