Labor #4Liberation, Parts 1 & 2: Getting organized around shared vision & strategy
On May 1 2023, an essay called 20 Theses for Liberation was co-published by various media outlets and organizations. It is co-authored by 30 progressive activists (among whom, I am one), co-hosted by 5 international organizations, and is intended to become a widely shared and dynamic organizing strategy towards mutual aims where vision, values, policy, and prefiguring can converge in an accessible and actionable way. It aims to be a “living document” on an online portal for participants to engage with and adapt while connecting with one another in solidarity.
The essay ends with a call to action for participants to engage by adapting the framework to their diverse contexts and exploring how it relates to their communities. We are each asked to make the leap from guiding vision and strategic norms, to applications in our own areas of expertise, our own lives. In this way, the 20 Theses for Liberation is intended as merely a jumping off point for a larger project of building a much needed culture of unity in collective self-determination.
What would such a shared perspective be? “The result, of course, wouldn’t be a fixed, unchangeable stance. It would instead continually alter in accord with new experiences, contexts, and insights. The best result would be a continued, collective process of refining, adapting, and utilizing a unifying framework. We would be building and sustaining a culture of coalescing around shared vision and strategy—which is the work of building a movement of movements. We would be bringing separate agendas into powerful solidarity with one another” (20 Theses for Liberation).
To kick off what we hope will be wide and diverse engagement, and in honor of International Workers Day, I was asked by one of the co-hosting organizations, RealUtopia.org, to comment on how the 20 Theses for Liberation relates to the labor movement. The relationship has nested implications:
- First, the vision and strategy proposed by the 20 Theses helps us consider how we organize and progress internally, within work teams, networks, unions, federations, etc. When we look at our own organizations for struggle, are we practicing what we seek or mirroring the oppressive relations we claim to resist?
- Next, the 20 Theses are applicable to building solidarity and power within the broader labor movement, beyond any one group or campaign and across industries and countries. It provides strategic norms for achieving broad worker solidarity.
- Third, the 20 Theses bears on inter-movement organizing when applied to building relationships and capacity for intersectional solidarity, program, and action. For example, in building the urgently needed power bloc that includes both the labor and climate justice movements, labor must be integral in developing and forcing a just transition to a decolonized economy and society that prioritizes people and planet over profit.
- Finally, via these nested applications, the 20 Theses is also a unifying vision and strategy that can be adapted to relate to diverse people from all over the world, by diverse people from all over the world. In this way, the outermost layer of all the nested applications is like a snowball picking up size and speed as it rolls onward, growing and being shaped by everyone who joins it.
Getting more specific within these nested layers of strategic organizing, below are some proposals that arise from applying the 20 Theses for Liberation to the labor movement today. Part 1 deals with applying the 20 Theses as a lens to guide labor organizers, while Part 2 explores inter-movement organizing using the example of the labor and environmental movements.
Part 1: 20 Theses for Liberation Inside Labor Organizing
The history of strategic organizing in the labor movement has been marked by changing circumstances and challenges, and it has consistently evolved, sometimes more and sometimes less successfully, to adapt to the needs of workers and achieve their goals. Today’s organizing efforts need to be inclusive, grassroots-driven, creative, legally and politically savvy, and focused on building public support. By applying lessons from the past, leveraging relevant strategies and tactics, and most importantly, by coalescing around shared vision and strategy towards mutual aims, the labor movement can make progress in advancing workers’ rights, improving working conditions, and achieving economic justice in the present day while continuously pushing towards sustained, fundamental changes in labor relations across society.
In response to the current challenges of neoliberalism, neocolonialism, systemic racism, rapid technological innovation, and ecological collapse, the labor movement has adopted new strategies and tactics like grassroots organizing, community-based campaigns, and alliances with other social movements, such as civil rights, environmental, and immigrant rights organizations. Labor unions have also used legal and political strategies to advocate for pro-worker policies, such as raising the minimum wage, expanding access to healthcare, and protecting workers’ rights to organize and bargain collectively. The vision and strategy laid out in the 20 Theses for Liberation aligns with these developments, and can be used to further demands and guide strategic organizing on an increasingly radical systemic trajectory while building collective power to achieve more, faster.
Labor organizing, through the participatory lens laid out in the 20 Theses, would prioritize principles of economic democracy, equity, solidarity, and worker empowerment, as well as the sought gains of anti racist, environmental, and feminist movements. The economic vision proposed in the 20 Theses advocates for decentralized decision-making, collective ownership of productive assets, equitable distribution of resources and wealth, the protection of diversity, and ending class-based divisions of labor.
What would this mean specifically? It would look different across diverse contexts, as it should, however some concrete possibilities could develop in the following areas:
Worker Self-Management: The 20 Theses for Liberation emphasizes worker self-management, which means that decisions about workplace conditions, production processes, and distribution of goods and services are made collectively by workers themselves. Labor organizing efforts would focus on empowering workers to have a meaningful voice and decision-making power in their workplaces, through mechanisms such as worker cooperatives, workplace councils, and democratic decision-making processes. This would involve organizing efforts to promote democratic governance structures in the workplace, where workers gain steadily increasing control over their working conditions and the direction of their work.
Economic Democracy: The 20 Theses for Liberation seeks to create economic systems that are democratic and participatory, rather than hierarchically controlled by a few individuals or corporations. Labor organizing through this lens would prioritize creating democratic economic structures, where workers have a say in the allocation of resources, investment decisions, and distribution of wealth. In today’s context, this could involve advocating for policies that promote cooperative and collective ownership, profit-sharing arrangements, and participatory budgeting, where workers have a direct role in shaping economic decisions that affect their lives.
Equity and Social Justice: The 20 Theses for Liberation places a strong emphasis on equity and social justice, with the goal of eliminating disparities in income, wealth, and access to resources. Labor organizing efforts would prioritize addressing issues of inequality in the workplace, such as wage disparities, discriminatory practices, and unfair labor practices. This could involve advocating for fair labor laws, promoting pay equity, and challenging discriminatory practices that disproportionately affect marginalized workers, such as workers of color, women, LGBTQ+ workers, and workers with disabilities.
Solidarity and Cooperation: The 20 Theses for Liberation promotes cooperation and solidarity among workers and communities, rather than competition and individualism. Labor organizing through this lens would prioritize building alliances and collaborative efforts among workers, unions, communities, and other social movements. This could involve forming coalitions with other labor unions, community organizations, and social justice groups to advocate for shared issues, such as worker rights, affordable housing, healthcare, education, and sustainability practices. It could also involve promoting cooperative networks, where workers and communities collaborate and support each other in economic activities.
Education and Empowerment: The 20 Theses for Liberation emphasizes the need for education and empowerment of workers to actively participate in economic decision-making. Labor organizing efforts would prioritize educating workers about their rights, labor laws, and economic principles, as well as building their capacity to engage in collective bargaining, negotiation, and decision-making processes. This could involve providing training, resources, and support for workers to understand and navigate the economic system, and empowering them to actively participate in shaping their own economic realities. It could also involve demands for redistributing workplace tasks in a non-hierarchical and fair way, so that empowering, rote, and care-work tasks are increasingly balanced across a workplace. In the context of the need to adapt entire industries to an ecological economy, it could also involve training and re-skilling workers preemptively to transition to green jobs, and to organize policy demands for achieving a just transition for all workers that gives voice to all workers.
Sustainability and Environmental Justice: The 20 Theses for Liberation recognizes the importance of ecological responsibility and reciprocity in economic systems. Labor organizing efforts through this lens would prioritize advocating for environmentally sustainable workplace practices, addressing issues such as climate change, pollution, habitat destruction, and resource depletion as well as simultaneously advocating for policies that guarantee the livelihoods of all people. This could involve campaigns, in diverse contexts, for policies such as green job guarantees, universal basic income, broadening sustainable public provisioning systems for housing, transportation, communication, healthcare, education and food, advocating for environmental regulations, and ensuring that workers have a voice in shaping workplace practices that impact the environment. It would also mean workers participating in expanding the commons to meet the basic needs of communities sustainably.
Through these potential applications, and through a diversity of other possibilities relevant to various contexts, labor organizing using the 20 Theses for Liberation as a broad guiding framework would prioritize worker self-management, economic democracy, equity, solidarity, empowerment, and sustainability. It would seek to create workplaces and economic systems that are democratic, equitable, and socially and ecologically responsible, with the goal of empowering workers to have a meaningful voice in economic decision-making and promoting economic justice for all workers.
Part 2: Labor & Climate Action #4Liberation
Inter-movement solidarity is a key aim of the 20 Theses for Liberation and it plays a critical role in today’s labor context by fostering collaboration, amplifying voices, and building collective power. By working together with other social movements, labor unions and worker organizations can address the complex challenges faced by workers today, such as inequality, discrimination, systemic racism and sexism, and precarious work, and advocate for policies and practices that promote economic justice, sustainability, and social equity. Inter-movement solidarity is an important strategy for labor organizing efforts to build a more inclusive, resilient, and impactful movement that advances the rights and well-being of all workers.
The example that must come to the forefront of labor intersectionality today is climate justice. All workers live on Earth, and the more our economic and social systems are stressed by ecological collapse, the more workers will bear the brunt of the suffering. This is not a prediction — it is happening now, especially in the Global South, but does not exclude many workers in the Global North. The people affected disproportionately by climate change are the very people who are affected disproportionately by unjust labor relations. However, there is a positive side to this situation. Workers are also uniquely positioned at a crucial leverage point for forcing comprehensive change — production. This is an opportunity for what could be the greatest grassroots power-bloc in history, and just might be our salvation as a species.
If we are to move beyond a fossil-fuel economy and capitalism’s overall need for endless extractive growth without leaving workers behind, workers must be engaged in the struggle. The labor and climate justice movements can come together to advance their shared goals of addressing climate change by transforming our economy and society to promote wellbeing and fulfillment within planetary bounds, and advocating for workers’ rights in all countries. The 20 Theses for Liberation is relevant as a shared visionary and strategic framework to help bring these movements together, each taking leadership in their own areas of expertise, while supporting and adding their perspectives and experience to collectively pursue mutual aims.
Getting more specific will require that participants continually examine their context to assess the relevance and potential impacts of organizing strategy. However, we can begin to consider some potential strategies for collaboration and increased interdependence:
Green Jobs and Just Transition: As previously touched upon, the labor and climate justice movements can collaborate to promote the creation of green jobs and a just transition for workers in industries that are transitioning away from fossil fuels. This includes advocating for policies that support job training and job placement for workers in industries such as coal, oil, and gas that will be impacted by climate action measures. It can also mean campaigning for green jobs guarantees, shorter work weeks with a living wage, UBI, and expanding public access to basic needs. By working together, the labor and climate justice movements can ensure that the transition to a more sustainable economy is equitable and inclusive, and that workers are not left behind. If any transition is to occur, workers must have a say in what this transition should look like, in which case they will become the powerful advocates needed to force meaningful action now.
Joint Campaigns and Actions: The labor and climate justice movements can collaborate on joint campaigns and actions to advocate for policies and practices that prioritize workers’ rights and environmental protections. This could include joint rallies, protests and other actions that raise awareness about the intersectionality of climate and labor issues, and demand action from policymakers and corporations. More importantly in today’s context, moving beyond raising awareness to disruption, the mighty power of the strike must be included in the quiver of nonviolent civil-disobedience. By joining forces, the labor and climate justice movements can amplify their voices and increase their collective impact. By taking the struggle to production itself, something only workers can do, these actions will have the greatest impact.
Solidarity on Ecological and Workers’ Health: The labor and climate justice movements can work together to address both ecological health and workers’ health concerns. This includes advocating for safe and healthy working conditions, protection from hazardous substances and pollutants, and access to clean air and water for workers and communities. By collaborating on environmental and health-related issues, the labor and climate justice movements can promote policies and practices that prioritize the well-being of workers and the planet.
Advocacy for Just Climate Policies: The labor and climate justice movements can collaborate in advocating for just climate policies that prioritize the needs and rights of workers and communities, particularly those most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. The labor movement needs to join the environmental movement in advocating for policies that remove the economy’s dependence on growth so that we can transition to production only of what is needed for the wellbeing of people and planet. This means an end to planned obsolescence and fossil fuel subsidies, the selective downscaling of certain industries and the growth of other industries, debt forgiveness, funding public services, eliminating unnecessary waste, and ensuring that basic livelihoods are not tied to employment. It includes advocating for policies such as renewable energy and efficiency incentives, climate mitigation and adaptation measures that create green jobs, and policies that promote energy democracy and community ownership of renewable energy resources. Here again, labor and environmental concerns are aligned in the need for increasing access to the things we all need to live a good life – sustainable and good quality food, housing, transportation, and education, clean water, community, and self-determination. By anchoring organizing in shared vision and strategy, we avoid the trap of the false narrative that labor and climate concerns must be at odds. By working together, the labor and climate justice movements can advocate for policies that address the environmental, economic, and social aspects of the climate crisis.
Intersectional Approaches: The labor and climate justice movements can adopt intersectional approaches that recognize the ways in which climate change disproportionately affects the Global South and marginalized communities, including low-income workers, people of color, indigenous communities, and other vulnerable populations. By acknowledging and addressing the intersectionality of climate and labor issues, the labor and climate justice movements can collaborate on solutions that are inclusive, equitable, and just, while attracting and engaging an ever increasing number of people from all walks of life.
Consciousness Raising & Empowerment: The labor and climate justice movements can collaborate on education and awareness-building efforts to highlight the connections between climate change and workers’ rights. This includes raising awareness among workers and the broader public about the impacts of climate change on workers, the need for just transition policies, and the benefits of a sustainable and equitable economy. It means an outreach strategy that immediately engages workers and the public in democratic forums so that their voices are at the forefront of developing policy demands for a just transition. By empowering and mobilizing workers and the public, the labor and climate justice movements can build a broader base of support and increased participation towards their shared goals.
Participatory Decision-Making: The labor and climate justice movements can promote participatory decision-making processes that involve workers and communities in shaping the priorities, strategies, and tactics of their movements. This includes creating spaces for workers and community members to actively participate in decision-making processes, such as town halls, forums, people’s assemblies, and participatory planning sessions. By promoting participatory decision-making, the labor and climate justice movements can ensure that the voices and perspectives of workers and communities are leading their efforts.
The 20 Theses for Liberation draws on a broad range of thinking and movements from all over the world. It is intended to be continuously adapted by diverse people and movements to suit their own diverse contexts. It is a practice of commoning.
The above proposals are only one example of potential, immediate applications for this project, and like the 20 Theses essay itself, is not intended to be a fixed end, but rather the beginning of increased dialogue, deliberation, and collective action across all the interlinked spheres of life. The point of the 20 Theses for Liberation project is to place a permanent value on uniting around positive vision and strategic norms towards mutual aims. We must build a culture of strategic organizing that returns again and again, over ever changing terrain and increasing urgencies, to clear sighted vision and to solidarity.
Getting organized will be the spark that ignites the changes that people are already not just longing for, but working for, though too often in relative isolation. When we have been focused so long on resisting what we don’t want, that we lose sight of what we do want, we must return to positive vision. When we become oppressed by one another while struggling to change the very systems that promote these oppressions, we must return to practicing what we seek. When we get stuck in the specifics of policy and tactical decisions, or between contending or even conflicting interests, we must return to a shared framework to remain rooted in deep solidarity as we look for ways forward, together. When the truth is constantly obfuscated by the powerful, and by our hegemonic narratives, so that we think we are surrounded by enemies on all sides, we must return to the ideas of interdependence and community. Here, we re-discover that what we need to do to live better lives now, is exactly what we need to do for our fellow workers, for our neighbors, for our brothers and sisters on the other side of the world, and for the planet itself.
The 20 Theses for Liberation can be read in full and signed by any person or organization who wishes to engage with the ongoing project. #4Liberation
20 Theses for Liberation Co-Hosts & Co-Authors:
ZNetwork, DiEM25, Academy of Democratic Modernity, MetaCPC, RealUtopia, Michael Albert, Renata Avila, Ramzy Baroud, Medea Benjamin, Peter Bohmer, Fintan Bradshaw, Jeremy Brecher, Urška Breznik, Noam Chomsky, Savvina Chowdhury, Devriş Çimen, Mark Evans, Andrej Grubačić, Jason Hickel, Kathy Kelly, Arash Kolahi, Bridget Meehan, Sotiris Mitralexis, Jason Myles, Cynthia Peters, John Pilger, Matic Primc, Don Rojas, Stephen Shalom, Alexandria Shaner, Norman Solomon, Cooper Sperling, Yanis Varoufakis, Brett Wilkins, Greg Wilpert