Artisans of Democracy 3

This morning my friend and I met to talk about the next chapter, “The Powerless Renew the Struggle for Equity: Hospital Trade Union Reaches Out to Cleaning Staff,” by Annie Fifre with Bruno Tardieu and Isabelle Frochaux.

From the introduction:
Before: Trade unions are increasingly confronted by the challenge of organizing and representing temporary, contingent and/or unskilled workers. These workers are particularly hard to reach and organize. They also tend to be considered less combative and effective in the struggle for more justice. Yet, in the name of that very ideal of justice, it is discouraging for unions to see the gap widening between the most vulnerable workers and the rest of the work force. The tension between the unions’ two major goals – gaining the power to win struggles, and reaching the most powerless – seems hard to reconcile.

After: In one hospital [in France], unskilled and temporary cleaning staff, traditionally left out of and sometimes afraid of unions, eventually joined a union and even the union staff. This produced changes in the relationship between workers, in the strategy of the union, and in the very organization of the hospital to take into account the cleaners’ knowledge of the patients in its system of information.

We really liked this chapter. It was clearly written with vivid anecdotes illustrating the process.

One of the main things we noticed was that this was a 15 year long story. It started with the author’s introduction to the Fourth World Movement and making the connection between her own life and her mother’s life with the things she read about in the FWM books. After her co-workers donated funds for a FWM rally in 1982, she started putting the FWM newsletter up on the hospital bulletin board. Slowly she began to realize the gaps between her involvement in the FWM and her work as a lab technician and union organizer; and the relative invisibility of the cleaning staff at the hospital. It was the newsletters on the bulletin board that helped her to open the conversation with the cleaners. After four years.

This confirmed for us that all of our work is part of a long process and reminded us not to be discouraged when changing a situation seems hopeless.

I wondered about what is really hopeless. One of the anecdotes that stood out for us was from a time when the cleaners started to come to the laboratory staff parties. One of the cleaning women came a few times and then stopped. Much later she explained that someone had said to her, “I didn’t know that one could mix rags with napkins.”

Why? Why would someone say something like that? It’s just intentionally cruel. I think it is a reaction of fear, especially from someone who doesn’t feel very secure about his or her own status in the workplace. Is there any hope that a person who would say something like that could ever really change? We basically agreed that anyone could change but that some people won’t. Even if they came to realize how hurtful they we being. I think someone who would say that knows exactly how hurtful it is.

My queries for today:

What is the difference between an ignorant and offensive remark and an intentionally hurtful remark?

Who are the people in my workplace/neighborhood who are the most vulnerable? How do they see me?

How long, o Lord, how long?

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