Respect the History of Struggle

ACORN Local 100 Organizer Training

            New Orleans        In training organizers, one thing I always remind them as they begin an organizing drive in a neighborhood, housing block, or workplace is to always ask and listen carefully when they talk to people, so that they can unearth what has come before them in this struggle.  In my book, a primary rule maintains that there is always a history of struggle.  Knowing what the history is allows work in the present not to simply learn from it, but to define contemporary work in support or opposition to the history and knowledge already deeply embedded in the constituency we’re trying to assist to organize.  Organizers don’t work on a blank slate.  They work on layers of life and experience.  Know it to use it.

I thought about all of this as I quickly walked through an exhibit in New Orleans, “Don’t Stand Alone:  Black Labor Organizing in New Orleans.”  Props to the partnership between the New Orleans Worker Center and Tulane University, yes, really, the anti-union Tulane, who in this case, give the devil its due, has been displaying the exhibit for weeks.  It’s no secret that I’ve been beating the drum for New Orleans and other cities to duplicate the Peoples’ History Museum in Manchester, England, which pretty much sets the gold standard in this regard.  Nonetheless, every step forward paves the path.

I could have spent quite a bit of time reading every display, rather than catching it all on the run before the main event of what put me at the Tulane Small Center, where the exhibit is temporarily housed.  Not having the time, I quickly navigated my way to the more recent history that our work and organizations where highlighted.  The great Living Wage Campaign was prominently featured that had been primarily organized by Local 100, then part of SEIU, and ACORN.  It was great to see the signs and props.  Another exhibit highlighted the HOTROC campaign among hotel and hospitality workers.  There were pictures of some of our marches.  It was fun to see all of this, and where the researchers and students took it all.  There were earlier panels on the New Orleans General Strike at the port, one of the few in US history.  The rise of the teachers’ union, UTNO, and their first teachers’ strike in South was also featured.  Good stuff!

Years ago, we had done a US social movement history exhibit called “This Mighty Dream.”  I’m no longer sure what happened to that.  It was in storage at one point.  We had offered it to the Tides Foundation at another time.  We need to find it.

For our victory to be inevitable, we need to respect our history, even as we build tomorrow while fighting for change today.