"Remember in November, But Organize First"
By Brendan Muckian-Bates
"Remember in November. Remember in November."
I’ve often heard this refrain chanted by the voting-inclined in response to any political problem posed to them. Too frequently, this refrain is used as a cudgel by those who view voting as capable of systemic change at those who don’t, or even those who, for a host of reasons, cannot exercise this right.
I grew up in a politically active family that understood this principle - voting can effect change, and when it doesn’t, one shouldn’t discount voting out of hand. My mother instilled this belief in me when I was little. She would take me with her to the polls before work during election years before dropping me off at school. She drafted me to help her Republican colleague win a seat in the Pennsylvania legislature when I was still in high school. I was tasked with canvassing for her friend and passing out his flyers on Election Day. I did so dutifully, not because I agreed with his politics per se, but because I liked the experience of learning how political campaigns work.
In college, my love of politics came with me as I campaigned for Obama in 2008 during my freshman year at WVU. I even met my wife canvassing for him in my hometown as we walked door to door, talking with voters, and phone banking in the evening. It was a campaign I was inspired by, too, less because of the policy and more because I believed that this was how politics operated at a fundamental level.
Soon after Obama was elected, though, my political compass dropped off the radar. I was no longer connected to the electoral strategies of my past. As I continued my college education, massive social, economic, and grassroots movements began to spread, not due to the efficacy of the political landscape but oftentimes in response to it. I watched the Occupy movement take on new life in response to the 2008 Recession and the bailouts that followed. I was a passerby for these movements, watching them from a distance and wondering to myself why my vote hadn’t effected more change than I thought it was meant to.
This was why, by 2016, I had been turned off completely to elections. What difference would it make if I cast my vote for one party or the other if neither side had been able to produce any significant changes to the experience of marginalized, oppressed communities across the country?
It wasn’t until connecting with other educators who would go on to start the WV Public Employees United page and WV United that I saw where politics truly operates at its basest level - organizing in the workplace. What began as a movement to get more union members engaged with their unions spurred on a national fight against privatization, in support of greater funding for public education, and has since brought a much bigger spotlight to the issues facing educators than has been witnessed in decades. The Red for Ed struggle has grown to include fights for social justice, environmental justice, and union solidarity to name a few. The number of striking workers last year was the highest on record for the past three decades, and wherever West Virginian teachers go, they are followed by refrains of “thank you” from educators and non-educators alike.
But if such a movement has had the effect of energizing workers to take greater control of their workplaces and become advocates for the conditions surrounding them, why has this not translated into electoral gains?
Gaylord Wilsire believed that the reason why workers were less likely to engage in the political process is because elections are more foreign to workers than labor unions. In his brief pamphlet Syndicalism: What it is, Wilsire explains:
A Labour organisation is a perfectly natural organisation for a worker to function within; in fact, it is the most normal organisation possible. Labour is the basis of life. Hence his activities within a labour organisation can very easily be infinitely more pronounced than in a political organisation, which is more or less foreign to him even when completely in his own control. Therefore it may be that we will never see the worker exhibiting the comparatively slight effort to achieve a political victory that he will to obtain an industrial one, merely because he must in order to achieve the political victory learn to work within an organisation not quite natural to him.
Since 1972, the percentage of voting age Americans participating in presidential elections has hovered at a consistent 50%. When we break down this number based on degree status, the numbers reveal something deeper - those who have less education tend to vote less than those with higher education degree status. Roughly 3 in 4 individuals with advanced degrees voted in the 2008 election, whereas only 1 in 2 individuals with a high school degree did, and only 1 in 3 with less than a high school degree did in the same year.
There a host of systemic reasons why those with less degree status are prevented from voting in elections, too numerous to outline here. However, if we treat these numbers as a baseline reading for where most voters are at politically, about half the population does not view voting as a means of effecting change, or at least not enough that this simple act would be worthwhile to them.
Midterm years are even worse. Even though the 2018 midterms had the highest national voter turnout of any midterm since 1914, West Virginia ranked 49th in overall voter turnout at an abysmal 42.5%. This, even after tailending the massive 55 Strong movement that had sparked a nationwide uproar that year. If the conditions of 2018 couldn’t drive voters to the polls, then it seems little else can.
This is why I argue that, after watching the disaster of the special session unfold before our eyes, I believe it is prudent for this movement to not be so easily led into the electoral strategies of “Remember in November,” but rather, should focus our energies on rebuilding locals and strengthening our power as organizers independent of elections.
Let me explain what this means.
First, we need to get back to the basics of organizing. We need to have committed, rank-and-file members in every building holding one-on-one’s with their fellow workers fairly frequently. These members should have contact info for everyone in the building and they should have a social map of where everyone stands politically. When a fight arises - disciplinary problems, funding issues, retaliatory measures against active teachers - those organizers can quickly mobilize workers for a fight. Likewise, when state issues arise and there is a need for canvassers talking to small businesses or a rally somewhere local (or even at Charleston, a great distance for many), those schoolwide organizers can bring together more people prepared for a large show of force. We have seen these problems plague our movement time and again. If we want to mobilize more workers quickly, this is our only path forward.
Secondly, this work does not divide us by our political affiliations. We must recognize that there are plenty of our fellow workers who have stood with us on the picket lines more than once, in direct opposition to the Republican Party’s policies, and in November voted for those same GOP legislators. The cognitive dissonance that permits such actions can’t be done away with by paternally wagging our fingers and claiming that these workers are “Voting against their self interests.” This strategy only further alienates us from those with whom we will need ready and engaged for future battles. Likewise, it does little to sway them politically. Only through directly engaging with failed policies, and fighting against them through direct action tactics, can workers truly understand what is at stake. They begin to understand more clearly that certain legislators do not truly have their best interests at heart, but our polarized atmosphere has made our party affiliations that much starker so that demanding one vote for a certain party over another devolves into screaming into the void. Little is gained in these interactions when we dictate to others how to vote instead of providing them opportunities to see what our present state of affairs are like.
Lastly, we must recognize that our fight is not to put into power one political party over another, but rather to organize workers at the base of production (ie, schools) to create an environment better suited to the needs of students, communities, and those who work there. In the states that currently do not have charter schools, all but Vermont are dominated by Republicans. In every major city that has witnessed a citywide strike this year (Los Angeles, Oakland, Denver), all have city councils dominated by Democrats. This fight is not about Republicans against Democrats, because both parties can and will serve wealthy donors when given the chance. Instead, it is a fight to empower ourselves and our communities to demand what is ours. Focusing a strategy on “Remember in November” codes this language into more simplistic terms - vote out the Republicans - and this will never provide us with enough allies to give us what we need.
None of this is to say that I oppose the idea of voting. Far from it. You should register to vote, make sure that you can vote in the primaries, and cast your ballot in every election that you can.
However, we shouldn’t deceive ourselves into thinking that voting will solve much on its own merits. As Emma Goldman once said about the suffragette movement:
The women of Australia and New Zealand can vote, and help make the laws. Are the labor conditions better there than they are in England, where the suffragettes are making such a heroic struggle? Does there exist a greater motherhood, happier and freer children than in England? Is woman there no longer considered a mere sex commodity? Has she emancipated herself from the Puritanical double standard of morality for men and women?
Voting divorced of social movements produces far fewer gains than they can otherwise accomplish. Rather, this process can lull us into a false sense of security, assuming, as I once did as a teenager, that voting alone can resolve the issues plaguing our state, our country, our world.
If we can take any lessons from our movement over these past two years it should be this - vote, but organize first.
Brendan Muckian-Bates is an English teacher in Ohio County. He is a member of the WVEA, the IWW, and is on the steering committee of the West Virginia United caucus.