How To Keep On Keeping On
Above photo: Nurses protested for safe staffing and protective gear outside the University of Michigan hospital in April. Jim West / jimwestphoto.com.
Even asking the questions is exhausting.
Who’s making the Covid decisions, and why do they change every day? How has the workload doubled? What about the new extremes of micro-management? Which of my co-workers, or their families, or my customers or patients or students are going to get sick?
And why can’t we seem to do anything to stop all this suffering?
The pull to give up, to withdraw, to hunker down and “just survive” is almost irresistible—even for a committed activist like you.
But here we are. We are connecting to one another at work, even if just through images on a screen. We know that others are in the same situation, and we remember that the fight we were already committed to—for decent, dignified work and the power needed to grab it—was always going to be a long and hard haul.
So how do we make it through to the other side of this pandemic, with some semblance of solidarity and sanity?
Count on your values
Check in with yourself, often. Remind yourself what you believe and what you want to do with your beliefs. Those have not changed just because our employers have found a new way to slap us around. Your deep values and beliefs can shape your response to any situation.
Say the boss has abruptly and unilaterally implemented an awful new policy. You have a choice: shoulder it without question, complain bitterly, or think critically about a response.
If your values include self-respect and respect for your co-workers, then the first two options make no sense. Accepting abuse is incompatible with your values. Just complaining is an advertisement of powerlessness. Why not start with the intention to resist? Even as just an idea in your mind, the intention is necessary to push through hopelessness that nothing can be done.
Even if you can barely scrape yourself off the ground, don’t broadcast your despair to co-workers. The tendency towards hopeless dismay is very contagious, but so is determination to not give up. Commiseration and complaining are a waste of time; engaging your co-workers around productive ways to resist is gold.
Consider how often you’ve found yourself thinking that most of your co-workers are apathetic, or are frightened, or just go along to get along. It may seem true, but remember: these are the attitudes that people take on when they have given in to helplessness.
Your commitment to resisting oppression should help you reach past these defenses thrown up by your co-workers, simply by steadily asserting confidence that things can change through collective action. No need to be falsely optimistic, or to cheerlead; just be doggedly committed to your own—and their own—dignity.
Set a real goal
Some goal is better than no goal. It doesn’t help to be overly ambitious (we need to get rid of this guy, or let’s all walk out right now, or I’m refusing to follow that policy no matter what). Instead, simply start with a clear conviction that something can be done, that some action can be taken together with co-workers.
Setting any goal that can be achieved is a far better use of your energy than setting a wildly unrealistic goal too soon. Is it a realistic goal to talk to colleagues and encourage them? Then that’s the goal to work toward.
Say your next goal is to get together with co-workers to ask the boss probing questions about the new policy. In lots of workplaces this itself will be seen as insurrection, and people will need coaching and encouragement to take such a step.
Again, it’s the attitude of collective noncompliance that matters. We should all be noncompliant with the fear that pervades the worksite, with the right of the employer to be unilateral and coercive, and with the “normal” subordinate behavior that’s expected of workers. Practicing noncompliance in small but purposeful ways builds the muscle of collective power, and pushes against helplessness.
For example: think of one totally useless form of record-keeping you’re required to do. Talk with co-workers who also despise this waste of time, and persistently reach out until you have a critical mass—it could be five people or 100, depending on your workplace—who are willing to just stop doing it.
Think through the arguments management will use to scare people, and how to respond. Think whether this particular form of noncompliance might affect anyone else’s work adversely. Consider what to do if management threatens discipline.
Always aim for a big enough group to call management’s bluff. If you win, even on something small, talk about it in the group and reflect on how it happened. Everyone’s confidence will increase for the next fight.
Love those co-workers
Since our only path to power at work is through collective action, the need for connection to co-workers is beyond debate. But it’s quite possible that you don’t love your co-workers! Maybe your workplace is rife with gossip, cliques, racist hostility, competitive friction, or distrust.
Or maybe there’s so much turnover that you barely know your colleagues. Maybe Covid means you never get to see them, or only in Zoom meetings where the supervisor talks endlessly.
None of this is reason not to strive to love the people you work with. Yes, love—meaning a deep-down commitment to the idea that they are human beings capable of collective dignity.
As we know from lifetimes of loving family and friends, love can have infinite expressions: When a co-worker snaps at you, don’t snap back. If you admire the way a colleague has conducted herself, tell her. If someone in your workplace is driving himself beyond reason, support him to regain perspective and slow down.
And wherever despair and hopelessness rear up in a co-worker, find the way to quietly and confidently express your trust. (No one can love everyone they work with; set a reasonable goal of those with the best potential to be allies.)
Stay on your feet
An amazing byproduct of the effort to love your co-workers is that it makes you feel less alone. Not only does it chip away at isolation—expressing your care and respect also builds out a productive network of people willing to trust one another. And when there is a network—even a small one—of co-workers in the habit of action, everyone’s confidence is built up.
If you happen to be brave enough to speak up to the boss individually, you may come to believe you’re the only one who will, or who can. Others will depend on your courage, rather than exercising their own; this actually reinforces isolation.
But a network where you depend on each other can help you lift yourself back up at your own lowest moments. Trusting each other also means fostering debate, tolerating criticism, making apologies, and granting forgiveness. It can become a “righteous cycle” of mutual respect leading to critical reflection leading to purposeful action.
Whatever form your purposeful action eventually takes—bargaining a Covid Memorandum of Understanding, fighting for more staff, defending benefits, demanding safety, beating back a bullying boss—if it is grounded in relationships that sustain you, it will keep you on your feet for the many struggles still ahead.
Ellen David Friedman is a retired organizer for Vermont NEA and a member of the Labor Notes board.