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Union organizing in your workplace? Here’s how to handle the internal conflicts

Raksha Muthukumar shares one secret from her time with Alphabet Workers and community organizing that every new tech labor organizer needs to know: sometimes, the fight is coming from inside the house.

Anybody who’s done any progressive organizing of any sort knows about infighting.

Here’s a look at a week that I just had: on Tuesday, a conflict among my Google union colleagues resulted in a 22-page statement of grievances; on Wednesday, reproductive rights activists in my hometown found themselves divided along racial lines; and for the entire weekend, NYC-DSA members bickered about electoral strategies on Twitter — again. And I’d consider that a fairly low conflict week, if you can believe it! In fact, if you’re thinking of getting into organizing, you should count on spending about a third of your time resolving internal friction. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!

Internal conflict is itself, well, a source of internal conflict. Some conflict patterns are unique to progressive groups and unions, which tend to favor more anarchist or horizontal systems of leadership – we ask if you’d like to “bottom-line” a project instead of leading it, and we call our leadership teams “organizing committees.” New members are empowered to step up into various roles and speak honestly, while experienced members learn to delegate instead of hoarding power and responsibilities before abruptly burning out. Since no person or collective of people is perfect, the ways in which we adapt and respond to conflict are crucial determinants of the health or toxicity of the environment. Transparent systems of feedback and accountability are critical to building the trust we need for healthy movements. It’s inevitable that groups of morally-driven, strong-willed, critical thinkers will butt heads now and then, and groups that embrace this are ultimately stronger for it.

Unfortunately, there is another side to internal conflict. It is well-documented that progressive organizations throughout history often succumb not to outsider interference, but to their own internal disagreements. Organizations that spend too much time squabbling cannot spend their time doing and that balance is a fine and tricky one. On one hand, requests to put aside their grievances can lead to member resentment and a slippery slope towards a more draconian organizational structure. On the other, groups that fight amongst themselves too frequently run the risk of being ineffective in accomplishing their actual goals and falling apart due to burnout and factioning of their membership. Organizations that seek to strike a balance between effectiveness and openness will all face this question eventually. From jail support in the South to labor organizing at a Silicon Valley giant, here are my tried-and-true strategies for coping with internal conflict in our progressive organizations:

  1. Conflict is not abuse. There’s a whole book written on this topic, but the concept itself is fairly straightforward. Accept that there can be healthy conflict and disagreements within any group of individuals, and that you are going to encounter some when you do movement work. Learning to identify the difference between good-faith debate between people meeting each other in direct struggle from institutional abuse and gaslighting is an important step for any organizer. It takes practice to know when to engage and to what degree, but I believe in you!
  2. Keep an open mind, but a critical one. There’s a reason that members of your trusted community are speaking up, and they deserve your respect and to be heard out. But don’t be afraid to recognize when someone is… Just wrong! When I first started organizing, I fell into the trap of thinking that the most progressive-sounding idea was always the correct one. This unfortunately left me open for manipulation as folks in my spaces started weaponizing social justice language to attack one another. Learn to identify the ways that these practices can be used for harm, and stay wary of when you could be doing this yourself.
  3. Learn your history. Why is your organization the way that it is? When I was doing jail support in Charlotte last summer, the ‘leadership’ was a loosely coordinated group of volunteers who spent most of their time creating shift spreadsheets or coordinating supply drops. They weren’t elected but they were respected. This worked fine for the group based on our small size and limited existence. For my union, that same strategy would not have worked. We were simply too large and diverse in thought and priority. If we didn’t incorporate anti-racism and transparency purposefully into our elections and structure, we would have just been spoken for by the loudest and most privileged of our membership. This concept was best captured by Jo Freeman, who once said that “there’s no such thing as a lack of hierarchy. You either have structures with well defined processes for democratic election, transparency, and accountability OR you have a free-for-all where the loudest (and generally white) voices are prioritized.” Check-in with folks who’ve been in your organization for a while; why did they make the choices they made that led your organization to where it is today?
  4. Center the good stuff. Organizing is emotionally draining, especially when people who are supposed to be on the same side feel like they’re at each other’s throats. And I don’t just mean keep reminding yourself of the higher purpose of your organization (though that’s important to prevent burnout too), but what are the pleasures in the day to day of your work? For me, I love meeting new people who share my values. We can debate labor organizing theory or text each other pet pictures; I love when teammates become friends. I also love looking at photos of people on the frontlines and have recently started enjoying leftist TikTok! The idea that activism has to be entirely self-sacrificing to be done correctly is wrong, and enjoying your time will keep you in the movement longer.
  5. Know when to step away (or not!). Sometimes, nothing will give you perspective like stepping away and chatting with a friend who has nothing invested in your internal conflict. I’ve sometimes found that going in circles with people who are all invested in the disagreements just contributes to building resentment or cliques who disagree with each other, ultimately to the detriment of the movement. Recognizing when it’s productive to have dialogue internally and when it isn’t is important to sustaining our work. And be conscious of public forums! It’s hard to mend rifts once they go viral on Twitter.

I try to remember to keep the fire and brimstone underpinning my work to a level that keeps me motivated without feeling totally defeated about the state of the world. Though I recognize that everyone’s mileage may vary due to varied histories, personalities, and privileges, I veer towards optimism in my organizing and try to interact with other organizers in good faith, until given reason otherwise. I focus on the positive aspects of our work, centering our wins to keep myself going. If you’re going to organize, I’m here to tell you that you will encounter internal conflict at some point. It could get messy, it could get personal, and it will be deeply frustrating. But if you find a way to stay centered in why we’re doing what we’re doing, try to learn something from it, and find yourself some pockets of positivity, you’ll become a movement veteran in no time.