An interview with, Jennifer, a militant student-worker in Seattle on: revolutionary study groups with the Black Orchid Collective, organizing against union bureaucracy and non-profit recuperation, & creating a solidarity network across the university for worker, student, and community control.
Campus Militancy and Union Bureaucracy
CW: Could you tell me about your background and how you came to be involved in radical organizing, particularly around universities?
Jennifer: I am a grad student in atmospheric science. I got involved in radical politics and organizing well before I went into science. In my earlier college days I was involved in the WTO protests in Seattle and I was involved in this anarchist collective called the Colmena Collective in Bellingham. I was involved in some organizing projects which fell apart. I ended up going to community college and getting into science through that, and kind of fell out of politics for a long time. And then when I was in grad school this group, Democracy Insurgent (DI), formed in Seattle, because a bunch of people from Unity and Struggle moved to Seattle and started the group. I really liked the organizing that they were doing with custodians at UW, which is where I was and still am a grad student. But, I didn’t really get involved with them until somebody invited me to join a study group of grad students and it was around grad student labor. That study group turned into an independent organization called For a Democratic University (FADU) (independent of DI, although most people didn’t think that that was the case).
In the years between, I hadn’t really been doing any organizing. I’d gotten really wrapped up in life as a scientist and as a student. Participating in this study group, I did so at a time when I was starting to be really unhappy with grad student life and with my research. It helped me make a lot of sense of why this area that had been intellectually exciting to me when I started had become so alienating. And then also, I had been politicized before I had even ever taken a calculus class. So, I was excited to be getting involved in that again.
With FADU, we organized with custodians and tradesworkers and community members who were primarily involved in DI and Unity and Struggle. This was the year of the University of California’s big student upheavals against the budget cuts there. I think it was also the year of the Oscar Grant organizing in California. So, we were getting a lot of momentum from California. It was a pretty active year for UW as well. The custodians were also very active in their struggle against cuts to the swing shift. The grad students were sort of the second sector on campus to move. I’d say in large part in response to the custodian struggle and the UC struggles.
It was a pretty good year, but our union was bargaining a new contract that spring. The university came to the table with major cuts proposed. It seemed like the grad students were potentially going to be fighting more militantly than we had before, and it seemed like our union was backing that and pushing that to some extent. So, FADU became embroiled in this process of trying to push the union leadership to take a more militant stance, to be more supportive of the militant rank and file, because we were hearing from the majority of the grad students that they were not going to do anything unless the union leadership was backing it. I think it turned into this sort of battle just with the union leadership. I’m critical now of the way we oriented ourselves, but I guess it was a good lesson.
I would say that’s the high point of the university-specific organizing that I’ve been involved in. Since then, FADU has engaged with the union bureaucracy a little differently in the sense that we’ve tried to engage with the active rank and file around us to push the union bureaucracy to be more democratic, which has had its strengths and weaknesses.
CW: You said that you have some critiques of how FADU had engaged with the UAW leadership earlier. Could you speak a little more on that and on how and why FADU changed their approach?
Jennifer: I think maybe to some extent we overestimated the militancy of the campus and underestimated the amount of scheming that the UAW bureaucracy was doing. They kind of used us as their shock troops to scare the university management into a better contract, and acted like they were supporting us, but then, the day that we were potentially going to go on strike, they didn’t call it off—because they had never made any promises, they had never called it on—but they sort of backed off. I think we overestimated how militant the campus was. The custodians and tradesworkers, especially the custodians, were far more advanced than the graduate students, who in turn were more advanced than the undergrads, in terms of militancy. So, the May 3rd strike was sort of billed as a campus strike of students, particularly grad student workers and also undergrads supporting them, with the idea that if there were enough people on strike and enough picket lines, the other unionized workers on campus could credibly claim that they couldn’t cross a picket line. I think that they were ready to do that, but the grad students and undergrads weren’t there. So, that was a mistake and I think that we oriented ourselves too much towards the union bureaucracy who, I think, was fanning the flames of our conviction that the campus was ready to explode like it had in California. They wanted management to think that.
CW: Would you say that after the results of that strike weren’t very satisfying, FADU then reflected on that experience and decided to change your strategy?
Jennifer: I don’t recall us really ever reflecting on that. In fact, a group of people, not just FADU but a number of people who had been involved in organizing the May 3rd strike planned this process of reflection on that and it never really happened. I think a lot of people were really demoralized by that. Basically, very few people showed up. We had a picket line of maybe 100 people, and thousands of people crossing it all day long.
I think that we changed our strategy because the May 3rd plan had come out of the context of there being a campus-wide strike committee that consisted of a number of different sectors of campus, and the following year it was really just FADU. So, we continued to orient towards our union, but we weren’t able to have as much of this larger campus orientation as we had had.
CW: Since then, have you been focusing on trying to democratize your UAW local?
Jennifer: Yeah, that was more what we did in the year following. So, we went to union membership meetings, and we’d bring out a lot of people. We’d hold these happy hours where we’d brainstorm ways to try to get the bargaining process to be open. We were trying to push for that because, in that first year of negotiations, the union negotiated a one-year contract, which they then did the following year. So, we’ve had three years in a row of contract negotiations. This has been frustrating for me because when bargaining has happened in the past, FADU has tended to become obsessed with what the union bureaucracy is doing and what’s happening in bargaining. We had originally conceived of bargaining as a tool to bring in broader participation in rank and file activity. That did happen, actually.
Ideally, I would like FADU to kind of ignore the union, and just go about doing the kind of militant, rank and file labor organizing that we think needs to be done. But, I think the reality of why we keep being drawn towards the union is that, for a lot of grad students, they’re a more easy to identify enemy than the management is. The management is totally dispersed throughout the university. We each have our advisor who may or may not be our boss, in our TAship or RAship, and then the management who has bigger decision-making powers is just totally dispersed or is someone who we never see. Whereas, the union bureaucracy are people who do have some power over our lives. We can go to a meeting and yell at them, so that’s what we did. But, I think that it’s not that effective.
A Solidarity Network across the University
CW: When you say that you think FADU should take a more kind of rank-and-file, militant labor organizing focus, would that look something like organizing an industrial, solidarity union, like an IWW approach, maybe even a dual card union approach?
Jennifer: What I have envisioned would be something less formal than that, but more along the lines of a solidarity network at UW—something that can take on individual fights for an individual worker or group of workers cross sector, but on campus. I think it should be cross-sector. I think that was one of the big strengths of the original organizing that FADU was part of: that we were in coalition with a lot of the different sectors on campus. It’s pretty easy for management to play divide and conquer with different sectors on campus. So, to try to actively combat that, but not to play this ‘students and grads and undergrads are supporting the workers,’ like a United Students Against Sweatshops kind of model, where we go march on the president to demand better wages for the custodians. We could do that but the custodians are part of the same committee too, and we know that they could also march on the president to demand childcare for graduate students. So, that’s the sort of thing that I’ve been imagining. But, actually, probably around something smaller than the demands in the two examples I just gave.
We had the germ of something like that this spring. But, I and two other tradesworkers were the main people organizing around that, and I got really busy and nothing has happened for about a month. We were fighting a campaign to prevent a tradesworker from being fired. He had written a letter to the university president about this complicated problem.
He actually got fired, but we had talked about continuing with it. The original issue was that this maintenance worker had filed a racial discrimination complaint against his boss and then was killed four days later in a car accident. Normally they put these plaques up to honor people who have died or have retired. Someone made his plaque and then put it up, and the supervisor then took it down. So, we could still fight to have that put back up, and I think that we could win that fight, because it doesn’t even cost them anything to do that.
CW: Do you feel like that could be an inspirational kind of issue to struggle around, because you have this individual with a pretty clear morally righteous fight to focus on?
Jennifer: Yeah. I think that if we were to do a sort of solidarity network, basically borrowing what I’ve learned from Seattle Solidarity trainings (which I’m sure comes from the IWW) of using these small winnable demands that have this sort of clear moral element to them, that could be attractive to people. Another dimension of this is that the whole reason this campaign exists is because several of this deceased maintenance worker’s co-workers had already gone to management. So, there was some level of self-organization of the workers there that started all of this.
Black Orchid Collective: An Organization for Revolutionaries
CW: I’d like to ask you about the Black Orchid Collective. What is it, what do you do, and how is it related with other kinds of organizing that you’re involved in?
Jennifer: So, Black Orchid is a really small revolutionary organization. We formed in February or March of 2011, after several members split from Unity and Struggle. I had been about to join Unity and Struggle. I don’t take a position on the split. There’s a lot I don’t even know about it. People who had been in Unity and Struggle and were in Seattle at that point started Black Orchid Collective (BOC). Since then a few more people have joined, so there are seven members now. The purpose of the group is to support each other as revolutionaries to develop ourselves theoretically and to develop our abilities to participate and intervene in struggle, and also to teach and interact with other revolutionaries and people who are becoming revolutionaries. We read a lot of Marxism. I think a lot of members of BOC identify as Marxists of some sort, but we don’t affiliate ourselves with any name really. That’s why a lot of people seem to think we’re either anarchists or Leninists. It’s kind of funny: we’re either one or the other. So, BOC doesn’t really do organizing as an organization. It’s not really an organization for fighting a campaign or something. But, organizing is a part of being in the group. You have to be an organizer. We’re in the process of trying to re-work how we do this. The way we’ve tended to do it is we all are participating in campaigns, sometimes more than one of us. We try to reflect on it in our meetings, on the different organizing and how it’s going and how we can bring our politics into it more, share general strategic questions and ideas with each other.
So, my organizing in FADU and with the two tradesworkers on the Rodney White campaign that I mentioned, I’ve conceived of that as part of my BOC work. I talk about it in BOC meetings. When BOC formed, I told everyone in FADU that that was happening and wanted to make sure that everyone in FADU could come to me and tell me that they were not comfortable with that if that was the case, and nobody did. Also, since Occupy started, I wasn’t as involved in Occupy as a lot of other members of BOC, because I was out of the country this Fall. And this past Winter, my grandpa has cancer and I’ve been traveling to Eastern Washington a lot. But, a lot of members of BOC have become very active in Occupy and in the projects that have started since Occupy faded out.
CW: Have you found your involvement in BOC to be helpful for your other organizing?
Jennifer: Yeah, it has. In FADU, it seemed like there was this osmosis or something. It seemed like as soon as we started meeting, even before we became BOC, it was this process of having this separate group to talk about my organizing with. Not even just about my organizing but about bigger theoretical ideas. I pretty immediately was a different FADU member. I came to FADU meetings a lot more engaged with what was happening in the city and what was happening nationally. BOC formed right around the time that the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt happened, so we were talking about them a lot. I just felt immediately a lot sharper in terms of thinking about FADU.
CW: You mentioned that it helped you feel more engaged with other organizing, other struggles around the city. Has it been a way for you to make connections in your organizing between your on-campus organizing, with FADU, and other organizing that happens outside of campus, in wider communities, such as with anti-police brutality organizing?
Jennifer: That’s been a real struggle. I feel that’s been a difficulty for everyone who’s affiliated with UW. Apart from a couple walkouts in October related to Occupy Seattle, UW struggles haven’t really interacted with the struggles that have been happening off-campus. Part of that is that UW just hasn’t been active. Political organizing just isn’t really happening there. Even when Occupy Seattle started, there were certainly UW students involved, but they just came to UW or downtown Seattle. We didn’t bring it to UW. And when we tried to, people started a UW general assembly, it failed pretty quickly. It was almost immediately overrun by liberals and Trotskyists and it became a really unpleasant place for everyone who wasn’t a liberal or Trotskyist white guy, and it fell apart pretty quickly. I can’t think of any reason why campus organizing would have to be that way, when city organizing was so vibrant and multi-racial and led by women of color. I don’t really have an explanation for that.
CW: Do you see factionalism or unproductive kinds of competition between different sectarian groups to control organizing on campus? If so, do you feel like FADU and/or BOC could try to overcome that factionalism somehow?
Jennifer: I feel that there’s a number of different anarchist and Marxist and other radical groupings that are working together really well. There’s a group called Hella 206, which sort of formed out of the coalition of people who organized the port shutdown. I’ve been pretty out of the loop for the last month. As far as I know that’s a pretty healthy non-sectarian, radical and revolutionary group. Then, the ISO, Socialist Alternatives, those groups… the ISO especially has a branch at UW, so they always show up for UW stuff. But I don’t think that there are any groups who are even trying. It just feels that campus is dead. There’s not really anything happening, besides the occasional custodian rally.
For Worker, Student, and Community Control of Universities
CW: So, FADU stands for ‘For a Democratic University.’ Do you have kind of a vision of what a ‘democratic university’ means? Particularly, thinking about the different ideals of the university that are often appealed to in different struggles over universities, often this idea of a public university is appealed to, going back to some kind of state-funded university that would have cheaper tuition. Is FADU appealing to that kind of ideal or is it something critical of that public university ideal and pushing for something more open?
Jennifer: I think that our ideal is often easily mistaken for the kind of state-funded university that you’re talking about, but the way that we’ve talked about it, and I think that we have at times been pretty explicit that what we’re imagining and calling for is… Well, we’re calling for a university, but maybe even calling it a university at that point is silly, but we’re calling for a university that is democratically controlled by workers and students with open access by community members. I mean, whether it even makes sense to call it a university at that point is a reasonable question.
The larger social context of such an institution is obviously also important. I think everyone in FADU is a revolutionary to some extent, so ultimately we’re calling for an education process that is liberating and is part of an anti-capitalist and anti-state project. I certainly wouldn’t envision that the University of Washington as an institution is going to be radically transformed into some engine that will facilitate that process. But, considering these ideals of what we want education to be, a lot of people go to school to get a job, and I think that’s totally legitimate, but a lot of us also want these other things from education. We want learning and teaching to be liberatory. So, appealing to that instinct is an important part of what we’re trying to do.
Also, appealing to explicitly getting rid of divisions between mental and manual labor, especially around the way that labor is divided on campus. So, custodians at UW are not just here to clean the floors. They are intellectual people who can both teach and learn at UW, should be able to.
CW: So, when you talk about fighting for open access, are you thinking about that from a kind of anti-capitalist perspective, seeing the role of universities within the wider education system, as kind of the top strata of this vertical pyramid, where at each level of the pyramid, students are categorized, valorized, disciplined, excluded, people are pushed out and into underemployment, highly policed and segregated parts of the city, the prison system? Do you see your vision of the university and your critique of how the university is now in relation to the whole education system? And do you try to do any organizing across the vertical strata of the education system with people in primary and secondary education, or with people who are pushed out of that?
Jennifer: We haven’t. I think that we should. But, I guess I would say that, in principle, what you’re saying is part of FADU’s critique and vision, but in practice we haven’t done that. Right now, there is a campaign to stop the building of a new juvenile hall in Seattle, with the demand to just tear down the current one and let everyone go. FADU hasn’t participated in that, but the way that you’re framing it would be a good way that we could participate in it.
CW: Yeah, I feel really excited about potentials for connecting those kinds of movements: university movements and prison abolition movements. Do you feel that that’s a connection you could make through Black Orchid?
Jennifer: Yeah, some folks in Black Orchid have gotten involved in the ‘No New Juve’ campaign.
Desires for Anti-Authoritarian, Anti-Capitalist Study
CW: Shifting to questions about pedagogy, have you been able to teach your own classes?
Jennifer: Yeah, I TAd one quarter and then I was the instructor in the summer quarter class. The class where I was an instructor, the course was on global warming. It was very hard to teach my own class on a topic that I actually know a lot about, on the basic physical processes that make global warming, but this class wasn’t really about that; it was a course for liberal arts students, and mostly about the impacts and policy. So, I spent a lot of time when I was teaching just trying to learn the material myself, and following the basic curriculum that faculty had used when they taught the course. And, when it came to the policy parts, I was extremely frustrated, because I just couldn’t find essays or videos or any material that had a more left or revolutionary perspective on global warming and how we as a species should respond to it. I found really shallow things that would say things like, ‘global warming is a product of capitalism. We can’t stop it without ending capitalism.’ But, that doesn’t get you that far when teaching a class on global warming. So, I think, in science, both the content of what I teach and the way I teach it, I suffer from a lack of basic materials, for being able to teach the sort of class that I would want to teach. One of my possible plans when I graduate is to teach community college, and I think I would find the same thing to be the case there. Although I would hopefully have more time, many quarters to develop my classes, so that can at least do a better job than I did this one summer. But, overall, in my teaching experience, the way I taught the class was very mainstream. We tried to have these discussion sections on Fridays, and they were a total mess. I just didn’t know how to facilitate them. They just wandered into people speculating on whatever random thing.
CW: Do you feel, as a new instructor and a precarious grad student, there are any resources you would like to have in order to connect with other radical academics who are teaching around a similar sort of topic? For example, in both the geography and political science disciplines, there are some listserves of radically minded teachers who share materials sometimes. I think a tricky thing that this points to is divisions between different disciplines, and a need for some cross-disciplinary academic listserves or something. For example, there’s an anarchist academics one.
Jennifer: Another thing that might be missing, or maybe I’m not aware of it, is that, in addition to the lack of cross-disciplinary discussion, there’s a lack of models of anti-authoritarian pedagogies for science. I mean, I’m sure that there’s a lot of elements of the way that a political scientist would teach that would apply for a science class too.
CW: The first one of the reflections for ClassWarU was a reflection from a geography professor who taught a physical geography class with an anarchist-communist approach. … Have you had any chances to do teaching outside of the university? You mentioned that you see Black Orchid as a kind of teaching space.
Jennifer: Black Orchid has a study group. We’ve been kind of off and on. The way Black Orchid works is we’re reading and then on a rotating basis one person writes discussion questions (originally it was supposed to be a presentation of the reading but it was reduced to writing discussion questions). If we’re on top of our game, we write comprehension questions before the discussion questions. The best of those have been really good examples of other sorts of ways of learning. In that case, we’re reading primarily Marxist texts and discussing them. People have occasionally brought in additional short readings or references from outside or done some research on historically relevant facts.
We’ve also participated in what we call ‘contact work.’ So, last spring, I used to meet once a week with a, what we call, ‘BOC contact,’ who is generally someone who we want to potentially join the group, but also could be someone who we see as a developing revolutionary and we want to give them more theoretical tools to use to engage in struggle in their communities. I used to meet with this woman and we read Marxist texts, and they were the ones BOC had already read in our study group. For the first hour we would meet and discuss the texts. Since I had already participated in the study group, I usually had more background knowledge that I could bring. We talked about our questions, and then in the other part of it we would talk about organizing that she was involved in and a little about organizing that I was involved in, and she could bounce ideas off of me and I could give feedback. So, it was a little bit of a mentorship role. She joined BOC, and we talked about continuing the contact work with her as a member, but with Occupy Seattle and with my grandpa’s health we haven’t been able to. So, I guess that’s another model – one-on-one. We tried to do it in groups, but I’ve found it hasn’t worked well.
CW: Is it kind of a mentorship model?
Jennifer: Yeah. In some cases, it could be with somebody who knows as much or more. In this case, she knows more than I do in some other political topics. So, it wasn’t always a one-way mentorship. But, she wanted to get more familiar with these Marxist texts, which I had a little more familiarity than she did.
On Recuperation in Occupy Seattle
CW: On the question of recuperation and co-optation, is that something you think about much? Have you seen radical movement energies and relationships recuperated into reformist sorts of institutions, like business unions, non-profit organizations, academic careerism? If you have experienced that, how have you tried to grapple with that or work against that?
Jennifer: I feel like I haven’t personally seen that trajectory happen, I think because I haven’t been involved in an organizing project long enough. But, I certainly see the effects of it, having dealt with non-profit people and business union people. I guess one example would be: in the fall, Occupy Seattle had declared that politicians were not allowed to speak at Occupy events. There was some big rally on a Saturday, and all these big union and non-profit people were speaking, and this guy who has a sound system and who does all the sound for union and non-profit events in Seattle—and who is a leader in immigrants rights organizations and had affiliations with the Teamsters and various non-profits—he was MCing and he wanted Larry G., who is a King County Councilman and who is black and who used to be in the Black Student Union, and there was a big controversy over it, because he is a politician who has actually sold out a lot of radicals and revolutionaries in the black community in Seattle, who were also there and who were really disgusted that he was being proposed as a speaker. I think this person is a good example of someone who, in defense of himself and his colleagues’ current liberalism, will refer to their past radicalism. Larry G. had been a leader in the Black Student Union when they were doing sit-ins with the demand of creating an Ethnic Studies Department at UW. So they have this credibility because of that. But now Larry G. is setting the police on radical members of the black community in Seattle.
In Occupy Seattle, that has been a constant tension, but there’s always been a strong group of militants who will call it out, to the point of being accused of being ‘paranoid of co-optation.’ But, it seems that being really open and uncompromising about your politics is the way I’ve seen people avoid that in the short term—which probably drives some people away.
Radical Intellectual Life Beyond Academia
CW: A question about the radical intellectual engagement that you get through your involvement with Black Orchid… I feel like a lot of radical academics, most of the people I’m talking with are not in the hard sciences but are in some kind of social science and they get some of their radical intellectual engagement within academia. I wonder if you’ve thought about this as an academic coming up, as a grad student currently, and in a precarious position facing the job market, and in uncertainty about whether you’ll remain in academia. I wonder if you’ve thought of ways that radical academics who get pushed out of academia and who don’t want to hang on in a kind of contingent academic hell, how those radical intellectuals can maintain a radical intellectual life outside of the universities.
Jennifer: I think that’s something that requires some kind of organization to really sustain. It doesn’t have to be a crazy mass infrastructure kind of thing, but some level of organization to maintain, like ‘we’re going to study these readings together and discuss them, or we’re going to do these classes.’ I think that’s needed. I think academics or former academics are people who are in positions to share the kinds of training that we’ve gotten with other revolutionaries and with people who haven’t necessarily had the opportunity but that are going to be making a revolution, potentially. So, if we can share those theoretical tools with people, I think that’s a really important thing that anyone who has this kind of training, even just a college degree, can offer. In BOC, when we were doing contact work a year ago, everyone who we were doing contact work with was somebody who’d been to college at least a little, except for one person. But we’ve made it our goal now to do contact work with people who haven’t been to college. It has been more difficult, partly because those particular people haven’t had as much time, have had busier lives, but also because college does give you some pretty useful tools for analyzing and thinking through these problems which are important for revolutionaries to understand.
CW: Is BOC trying to develop a kind of more basic skills training, or try to build that into a kind of revolutionary training?
Jennifer: We haven’t done that, and we haven’t really talked about. I’ve heard other people suggest that. Only one of us, M., really has a teaching background in that. I’ve taught twice but I have no training as a teacher. M. is in a Masters in teaching program now, and he’s planning on sharing some of the tools that he’s been learning with other folks. Through that process, maybe we could develop the kind of thing you’re talking about, using this contact work to develop basic tools.
CW: I’m thinking about movement-embedded education that happens in Argentina or Brazil, with the Landless Workers Movement, where they’ll have three basic skills classes in the morning and then some political education classes in the afternoon and it’s all kind of mixed together.
Jennifer: There’s a Spanish class that the Wildcat, a local anarchist collective is doing. I haven’t been to any of those classes, but they might have a similar sort of orientation. Also, the people in Occupy Seattle have created a Free Universe-ity, which has free classes. People are teaching classes on a volunteer basis.
This interview with Jennifer was conducted on June 12th, 2012.