Reflections by Tamara Joseph (former organiser with Citizens UK, working with MDXSU and Liberal Judaism who learnt her skills as a union organiser in the USA)
What was missing from our discussion of solidarity? An understanding of solidarity as fundamentally collective and as the source of courage in the face of real jeopardy and risk. While it’s possible for an individual to show solidarity or to exercise leadership in building solidarity, if you miss the element of collective action from solidarity then you are missing something fundamental.
We rely too much on developing the individual leader and the courage of the heroic individual. Solidarity is about developing the leadership and building the courage of the heroic collective.
A good trade union is a group of people coming together regularly, perhaps every week or couple of weeks, to talk about how they are going to take action to uphold fairness and justice and respect for the value and dignity of every human being and to prepare themselves to be ready to stand up whenever they see those values being violated. It’s rooted in the idea that we all share a core self-interest in living in a fair and just society and being treated with respect and dignity.
Solidarity is a practice, a habit of action, a discipline. It needs to be practiced, like exercising to strengthen a muscle.
The Wobblies slogan (Industrial Workers of the World) was: ‘An injury to one is an injury to all.’ Implicit in this is the idea that an injury to one is a call to all for action. Pastor Niemuller’s famous words make this need for action more explicit. It begins, ‘First they came for the communists. I did not speak out because I wasn’t a communist.’ It ends, ‘When they came for me, there was no-one left to speak out.’ It expresses a truth that is obvious in the playground or the workplace. If a bully is allowed to treat someone unfairly and no-one speaks up, they’ll be emboldened to treat everyone unfairly. In the end, everyone will suffer.
One of the most painful lessons of union organizing for me was the realisation that if people have not developed a habit of standing up to power, then in a crisis they will align themselves with power. To put it another way, what people believe and say and the values they hold won’t determine how they act in a crisis. And what they believe and say and the values they hold don’t ultimately matter all that much – it’s what they do that matters. How people act in a crisis will depend on the habits and relationships and commitments that they have formed. Trade unions train people in the habit of standing up to power and build relationships founded on a mutual commitment to stand up to power. That’s how trade unionists earned their place high on Pastor Niemuller’s list.
There’s a reason that people don’t stand up unless they’ve formed a conscious and deliberate and regular habit of doing so: it’s frightening, and it’s frightening for a good reason, because it carries real risk and jeopardy. This is true even in relatively low-risk situations like challenging an unacceptable remark by a friend or colleague. So standing up to power requires courage.
Just as standing up to power requires practice, not standing up to power is addictively habit forming.
That’s why the language of ‘injury’ is so important. Part of what gives us the courage to act is knowing from experience that while the fear of the consequence of standing up is real and immediate and powerful, failing to stand up also comes at a high price. Whatever decision you make carries a real danger of harm. To paraphrase Judith Butler: “You are already in trouble. The question is, how best to make trouble, and what kind of trouble do you want to be in?”
The fear and the risk of standing up to power are mitigated when people take action collectively. The experience of solidarity, knowing we are not alone, being able to depend on the support of the people around us, gives us the courage to act.
Hesitation in the moment of decision can be fatal to action. Once you start asking yourself what you are going to do and whether you are going to do it, you have already lost the impulse to act. When everyone looks around to see who will make the first move, nobody moves. That’s why you need the experience, the practice, the habit, the discipline of solidarity.
Solidarity prepares you to step up when you see an injustice without looking around to see who else is stepping up. It’s an act of leadership and courage but also an act of confidence based on experience that other people will make the same decision to step up at the same time.
Courage and action are contagious, just as inaction and fear are contagious. Solidarity is about promoting the contagion of courage.
Implicit in the Wobblies slogan ‘An injury to one is an injury to all’ is a recognition that fairness, justice and dignity are only ever provisionally won. You have to be vigilant, to police the boundaries that you have been established, and every gain has to be fought for and won every day, over and over again. Solidarity is a state of vigilance and readiness for action.
Justice, like peace, is an active virtue. It’s not the absence of something, the absence of injustice – it’s the presence of an active and constant commitment to uphold the value and dignity of every human being. Just as peace-making is required for peace, justice-making is required for justice. It doesn’t just happen. The arc doesn’t bend on its own.
Solidarity is something you have to learn by experience. You can’t learn about it by reading a book. A fellow-organiser once said to me that they’d seen the moment that graduate student teaching assistants got a new understanding of solidarity when they went on strike and picketed the university campus. Truckers arriving with deliveries didn’t need to drive up to the picket line and ask who was on strike and what the dispute was about. They just saw the picket line and turned around and drove away.