Open Letter to Radical Social Workers
By Paul Fudder, January 2010
This week, we offer the first submission by a guest and friend of the Rank and Filer: Paul Fudder. Paul is a phenomenal socialist radical social worker and union activist. We look forward to having many more pieces of his to come.
I’ve been mulling over a lot recently about my beliefs about the world, where I want to be going, social work and also jobs. I keep coming back to the same spot, however: I can’t get where I want to go by myself. So, I’m writing this to share some of what motivates me – which may be similar for some of you – and also my thoughts about the implications of all this stuff coming together (beliefs, motivations, social work, jobs and ways forward). Nonetheless, nothing is set in stone, and what I describe below is really just a best guess at one direction forward.
I see it as necessary and essential that we act together, based on our beliefs about a better world and our best thinking on how to get there; I don’t see it as an option, as something to do if we have time, or something for a later stage in life. So, I am interested in others’ thoughts, reflections on this and hope we can come to some consensus around what working together should look like.
Radical Democracy and Social Movements
So, let me start with the basics. I believe in democracy, so I guess I could call myself a radical democrat (small ‘d’). I believe that people should have a fair say in the society they live in, and collectively have control over how it operates. Call it utopian, but hey, that’s where I stand. Of course our current US society is far from that. The major social structures that impact people’s lives (economically, socially, psychologically, etc.) are mostly out of people’s control. Go ahead and test it—try voting for your boss, holding the military (or police) accountable, learning your own history in school or demanding access to healthcare.
I believe that electoral democracy (supposedly what we currently have) is important, but too narrow an idea of what it means to live democratically. I see the major mass progressive social movements as efforts to live democratically, whether it was to end racist policies, imperialist wars, exploitation of workers here and abroad by corporations, social and economic oppression of women and LGBTQ folks. I see all of these movements as efforts to hold society accountable to a belief in democracy similar to what I mentioned above. At their height, each of these movements involved huge numbers of people, and they gave so many others hope that another and better world is possible (including me!). They also made significant concrete changes in society and broadened how democracy is lived on a massive scale. Though they all have contradictory elements and their work is still incomplete, I believe that building these sorts social movements is a central and essential task of progressives. To put it another way, while helping folks heal, one by one is necessary, it won’t heal the social injustice; that can only be done collectively. This isn’t the only thing that motivates me, but it’s a major one.
As I think about how I can best help build social movements, a few questions come to mind:
- Is there a large base of people involved (or is it mostly a handful of committed activists)?
- Who is involved in leading this movement?
- How does this movement contribute to social justice and for who?
- Is there long-term institutional structure within which we can build (i.e. are there organizations strong enough to effectively mobilize a mass base)?
The Labor Movement and Radicals
Many of the social movements focused on poverty and economic exploitation as a core part of other oppressive dynamics, whether they were share-croppers, migrant fruit pickers, factory workers, or sanitation workers (like those MLK was working with when he was assassinated). Whether they were in a recognized union or not, the issues were about economic exploitation nonetheless. And though most of the recognized unions were sexist and racist in structure well into the 1930s, they have since been forced to include people of color, women, LGBTQ folks and undocumented workers in increasing numbers. Currently, about 18 million people are represented by unions in the US (roughly 14% of the recognized workforce), with the highest rates among African American workers (17% for men, 14% for women). On a whole, union members make nearly 30% more money, with the benefits of unionization being greatest for Latino workers (50% higher wages, compared to non-union workers). Though not sufficient alone, unions are and have been perhaps the most effective anti-poverty movement.
Over the past century, many different groups of radicals have seen the labor movement as a key place to organize. In the 30s many radicals in the socialist and communist parties went into unions to break down their exclusionary practices and organize the ‘unskilled’ workers, including many African Americans who had recently moved north for the factory jobs; some SNCC members moved to Detroit and organized a militant strike to protest racism within both the auto factories and the union representing them; the Young Lords organized to enter factories and build unions among the Latino workers. Often, radicals also called for greater democracy within the unions, as well as more leadership from the ‘rank and file’, rather than what is often an entrenched leadership. This has been the rallying cry of major labor struggles for a long time, and there are many groups that try to help push this (such as Labor Notes and the Association for Union Democracy), and I believe it remains an important area where radicals can contribute. When looking at various social movements and the prospects of putting our efforts into building them (such as the questions I posed above), I believe that building the labor movement makes a lot of sense as a place to put energy (though certainly not the only place).
Radical Social Work and the Labor Movement
I chose social work as a field because I wanted my daily work to contribute towards the world I want to see. I’ve tried to figure out what it means to me to be a Radical Social Worker, and I’ve focused on two related aspects: First, radical social work could involve us developing ways of practicing that integrate resistance against oppression into our ‘clinical’ work; Second, we can use our position at work to help build social movements by organizing with both our clients and our co-workers (last year I wrote a short essay explaining why I focus on these two aspects are necessary and achievable, which will be posted in future months in this blog.)
However, many of the agencies we work in are uninterested or down-right hostile to the sorts of anti-oppressive practice desperately needed, and most of the agencies we’ll work in were never intended to help build the sorts of social movements that inspired me to believe in a better world, and they are likely to resist being used with that goal in mind. So, unless we are lucky enough to find that deeply progressive, radical agency, we are going to be pressured to leave our politics out of our work and even our workplace.
We don’t have to give into the pressure, however, and we can fight back. I have tried to do in my jobs, but without the protection of a union contract, I have been unable to make much progress (i.e. without a contractual grievance process, any of us can be fired without cause). Furthermore, working in unionized positions provides us important opportunities to participate in building a stronger labor movement as members of unions. We all have to work, and I believe that this approach makes very good use of our time and positions at work as social workers:
- With the organized support of co-workers and a union, we are likely to be better able to influence the quality of services we provide (i.e. a sort of liberatory, anti-oppressive social work practice).
- We will be more protected in our efforts to involve co-workers in social movements, and ally with clients for the changes that they demand (whether regarding our agency or broader social movements).
- We will be voting members of unions, able to support progressive efforts to make the labor movement (with its mass base of membership, financial resources and institutional power) more focused on social justice, alliances with other social movements.
It will be a tough road, and I know that I can’t go it alone. And if we’re going to commit to working together, it needs to be really well thought out. I am suggesting that we consider taking jobs in a coordinated fashion so that we can work together. This is not an immediate sort of ‘pack up and leave’ idea, its more like, “if you’re looking for work, how about working with other radical social workers in a well thought-out, strategic project to pursue our goals of changing social work and contributing to social movements?”
Some initial strategic ideas include focusing on schools and hospitals:
Schools: the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) has been and is often very conservative. There are already groups of radical teachers who are trying to change curriculum (i.e. opposing the standardized test fetish) and school policy, and they are challenging the existing UFT leadership to be more progressive. The downside is that it is currently really hard to get School Social Work jobs due to the DOE’s hiring freeze.
Public Hospitals: Nationally, about half of the roughly 650,000 social workers work in medical or mental health settings, and these areas are expected to grow faster than other areas in the next decade. The New York City public hospitals have been important sites of social conflict and have been a target for privatizing health care (and of course reducing access for low-income people). Social workers in Health and Hospitals Corporation (the City agency that runs them) are in Local 768, within the larger union DC37, along with social workers and other workers from many other city agencies. The work is likely to be less exciting than perhaps we would like, but there are many job opportunities, and so it may be easier for us to get jobs together.
- Bureau of Labor Statistics: http://www.bls.gov/cps/tables.htm#union (data for 2008)
- Muhammad Ahmad, We Will Return In The Whirlwind: Black Radical Organizations 1960-1975 (2007)
- Iris Morales, Palante Siempre Palante! The Young Lords (1996)
- www.LaborNotes.org and www.uniondemocracy.com
- Such as NYCoRE: www.nycore.org
- Bureau of Labor Statistics: www.bls.gov/oco/ocos060.htm (data from 2008)
Paul currently works as a social worker at a large public hospital and is active with his union.
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