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Performativity in Activism

Members of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Wisconsin Healthcare were among more than 60,000 citizens, public workers, teachers and union members gathered during a Reclaim Wisconsin protest rally held outside the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison, Wis., on March 10, 2012. One year earlier, Wisconsin’s Republican-controlled legislature pushed through Gov. Scott Walker’s bill to strip unions and public workers of many collective bargaining rights. (Photo by Jeff Miller for SEIU)

Today is a very bad day. Oral arguments in Janus v. AFSCME, the case that will almost certainly eviscerate public sector unionism by creating national right-to-work for government workers begin. Barring a miracle of John Roberts or Anthony Kennedy deciding to support the working class for once in their lives, this is a done deal.

So what are unions doing today? Holding rallies. And I have to ask why. There are things unions should be doing. They should be signing up their members who are presently paying fair share fees but who are not members. They should be organizing internally, department by department, to keep their union membership as high as possible when this decision comes down. If you have 60 percent membership rates, which is pretty normal for a public sector union, at least in higher education, that means you are going to lose nearly 40 percent of your revenue (usually, nonmembers pay slightly less than members) and that’s before your soft and relatively unorganized members realize they can get something for nothing. I can guarantee you that most public sector unions have not prepared for this at all. Oh, they have strategies at the international level that probably won’t work, but are most locals activated and doing everything they can to stem the impending disaster? No.

In many ways, it’s easier to just hold some rallies to rally the troops against this case. But what is that going to accomplish? Does Neil Gorsuch care? Does Sam Alito? Does Clarence Thomas? Of course not. A rally should have a point. This just seems like holding a rally because that’s what unions do and unions should do what unions do. There’s a performative aspect to this, and to much of activism generally. You sing the same (mostly terrible) songs, repeat the same chants that people used decades ago, attract the same people to the rally who always come, some because they want to and some because they have to or feel expected to show up.

Now, I hesitated to write this at LGM because there is such a strong tendency in comments to downplay the role of protest and play up the role of electoral politics, as if they are somehow disconnected. In fact, rallies can play an absolutely critical role in creating change. They are necessary, just as working class power on the ground is necessary to create the political space for politicians and liberal policy wonks to have room to operate. Take away the working class power and you take away the ability to get anything done. That’s the reason why right-wing organizations are funding Janus to begin with.

But again, rallies need a real target. Protesting at the state capitol against a terrible governor that you are trying to replace, such as the rally above that attempted to get rid of the odious Scott Walker. An action outside of the office of a bad boss. A march to the city council meeting. These things have a target that can see you and that might care because you can pressure them or they lead to an election that can overturn the bad decision. The Roberts Supreme Court is not that target. Maybe I just hate performativity and spending my time on actions that don’t lead to anything. And the last thing I want to do is to talk bad about unions. But this energy would be better expended signing up members than in a pointless rally that attracts 100 people and then Abood is overturned 5-4 anyway.

….Here is a great rundown of oral arguments from Charlotte Garden. She is pessimistic but perhaps cautiously so. The one takeaway is that Anthony Kennedy despises public sector unions, but that neither Gorsuch nor Roberts tipped their hand.

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