‘The Ask’ and #gradlaborcounts

by Molly C

Alinsky and Me, the organizer and the anthropologist: These are my efforts to work at this distance, by embedding instrumental political strategies into socio-cultural systems/histories/contexts.  The exercise is a reckoning with tempo, situating linear urgencies of a campaign in a slower ethic of the intimate, material, ecological densities that structure and exceed our everyday.

Demanding the right to unionize is like a picture within a picture: we are demanding the right to demand rights.  The Grad Labor Counts! campaign brings together student-workers already organized and already laboring, to demand legal recognition (and thus bargaining status) for what we already do.  On the other hand, the National Labor Relations Board continues to sit on the ruling that would resolve this bureaucratic absurdity; they cannot rule against us, there’s no such legitimate opinion.  We only ask they do what they are already supposed to do: their job; the nation relating to labor; public servants working for the public welfare.

It’s a specific ‘ask,’ directing particular actors to particular aims.  But it’s also a basic statement of where we stand in a broader political landscape, and what this symptom expresses about the system as a whole.  If we win what we ask for, it will change the rules of the game for our fights to come and thus directly contribute to improving our livelihoods.  But even without the win, we have come together around ‘the ask.’  This is more than symbolic: in our coming together, ‘the ask’ gets bigger and richer, more dense and complex, with so many energies and stakes brought into shaping it.

(This more than symbolic, and thus largely imperfect and always provisional.  Antagonisms and exclusions are produced at each further call for solidarity and inclusion.  We come together around a situated ‘ask’ from different and unequal situations.)

When we come together as workers, thus provisionally organized and purposefully united, our status as a union speaks for itself.  We present our ‘ask’ civilly to the NLRB — whose sole legitimacy is our collective sanction — as an opportunity to fulfill its function.  But ‘the ask’ overtakes the particular actors who so habitually make decisions on illegitimate political-financial motives.  If we succeed in coming together and demonstrating this illegitimacy, we cannot be discouraged by such a defeat.  The particular ask might be lost.  But the call has been answered.

(I dream of a day when members of the NLRB, along with congresspeople, the President, and all their appointees, must unionize to negotiate their own working conditions with their constituencies.)

So what, stuff of ‘ask’: Demands are central, but they are not limits.  Demands help us describe our common project; they give us a shared object to hold together; they mediate togetherness.  Progressive victories sustain us, both as vindications of shared effort, proving we made together what we now hold in our hands; and in the ground gained, the material victories that build our resources to make it everyday and condition the possibility of coming together again.  We need sustenance, continually.

So what, tempo of ‘ask’: Demands don’t happen in a linear sequence (ask-outcome : next ask-outcome : next ask-outcome) or even the redemption narrative (ask-loss : ask-loss : ask-loss : ask-loss : ask-FINAL VICTORY).  Rather, demands make real what we can always do as a community, from many different positions, with many different asks and with many different outcomes, and absolutely no finality: come together to decide the shared terms of social life.