From Elizabeth Pellerito: This prose piece describes the workshop series a group of labor activists and I have developed and begun offering regularly. In the workshops, we explore trauma in the labor movement: how it stems from oppressive systems including white supremacy, settler colonialism, the patriarchy, and most of all capitalism; how it sits in our bodies and comes to work with us – and is produced by the systems in which we labor; and how we can use the tools of solidarity to build a new kind of movement that heals collective trauma by working to overturn these systems. The work is collaborative, but this is my own story of how I came to it, and why the labor movement needs it now more than ever.
There is a particular magic that happens when workers stand together, share their stories, and hold each other up. As the chant says, when we fight, we win…but sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we lose. Sometimes we win, but we hurt each other along the way. And sometimes we’re just too tired and hurt to show up for each other at all.
We are at a pivotal moment in our nation’s story, when workers are poised as never before to find a way to fundamentally overturn the capitalist and neoliberal systems that keep us locked in low-wage jobs, overpriced housing, and an unchanging racial wealth gap. But we’re also tired. We’re in pain, mental and physical, like never before, and we carry that pain with us in our movement and in our work. If we don’t stop to talk about that pain, how we can help each other carry it, and how we can overturn the systems that cause it, I fear we will lose the power and potential of this revolutionary moment.
This all begins to explain why I joined with fellow organizers and labor activists to explore an issue that, pre-pandemic, the labor movement had been slow to acknowledge, an issue that risks becoming a mere buzzword during the COVID era: trauma. We experience trauma at work, and we bring trauma to work. But most of us in the labor movement aren’t talking about what that looks like, how it impacts our organizing for economic justice, and how we can change our movement from a transactional victory machine to one that builds power, that builds both revolution and evolution, as our movement mother Grace Lee Boggs would have put it.
I came to this work, unsurprisingly, through my own trauma. In a previous job at a university, I was stalked and assaulted by a coworker, who eventually kicked my door down and threatened my life. I remember my landlord asking what I did to make him so mad. I remember the prosecutor’s assistant telling me that people “like him” weren’t likely to get convicted and I was much better off letting him plea down to non-felony charges. And I remember submitting a copy of the restraining order to my boss, telling him that the women’s shelter recommended I notify him since this is the period when I was most likely to be murdered in the workplace.
By coincidence, I found out that an undergraduate student in our department named Meg was also a victim of my perpetrator – he had violently raped her and strangled her in a hotel room near campus. Together, and at my urging, she and I went through the Title IX process. It just so happened that this was the moment that initial allegations against Larry Nasser were starting to hit the press, and our university, Michigan State, was on the hot seat. The institutional process took nearly two years, and in the end, our perpetrator’s expulsion was overturned, along with a number of other expulsions of men were found responsible for rape on campus.
I carried that trauma with me like a backpack everywhere I went. It settled in my bones and flipped a switch that turned my body against itself, eventually resulting in a number of diagnoses, a cane, immunosuppressants, and a whole lot of orthopedic shoes. But I also carried something else – solidarity. In a different version of this story, Meg and I would be working on Title IX reform across the country, organizing on campuses to hold perpetrators accountable. This is not that story, but I think ours is just as important. Meg and I have stayed dear friends, and we both became educators who work to transform systems from the ground up: she works to combat human trafficking, and I train workers to step into their power and demand economic justice.
It’s important that Meg and I both chose teaching, and I think not a coincidence. Which is not to say that we think we have the answers and are into telling people the right and wrong way to deal with these issues. My field, labor education, is made up of a small but stalwart band of activists by another name: teacher. We practice popular education, and our principles are these:
– We start with the knowledge and experience – the expertise – that’s in the room, the kind that comes not from a fancy degree, but from days in a warehouse and the pain that follows, from nights as a single parent with sick kids, from hours logged as an Uber driver with no access to healthcare or a minimum wage.
– Our job is to ask questions, not answer them. Asking the right question is an art (one that I’m still learning from my mentors).
– We are not neutral, and the final step of this kind of education is action against oppression. bell hooks says that we must teach to transform – ourselves, yes, and our feelings and opinions, but also our structures, political institutions and laws, and of course our workplaces – and also to transgress – against the social order of white supremacy, capitalism, colonialism, transphobia, and other oppressive structures.
So, a lot of trauma, a healthy dose of institutional betrayal (Jennifer Freyd’s brilliant term for the trauma we experience at the hand of an institution we expected to protect us – an employer, a school, a church), a disability, a job in the labor movement, and a whole lot of young organizers over the years asking to tell me about how they had been burned out, harassed, and disrespected in their entry-level organizing jobs: all this led to Spring 2019, when a group of colleagues and I delivered the first trial workshop in what we would eventually come to call “Healing Not Harming: Building a Trauma-Informed Labor Movement.”
In these workshops, collectively developed, we dive deep. We listen, we cry, we hold hands and hold space. We talk about trauma through time, across generations of settler colonialism and genocide; we talk about it in space, in all the spaces where we are harassed, raped, assaulted – in the fields, in the factories, in our cubicles, in our homes and our churches. We explore how our trauma stems from oppressive systems including white supremacy, settler colonialism, the patriarchy, and most of all capitalism. Every time we are paid less than we are worth, every time we work harder than the bosses deserve, every time we can’t make rent or take a nap or afford childcare, we experience the trauma of capitalism; it sits in our bodies and comes to work with us – and is produced by the systems in which we labor.
What we have come to realize is that our movement for economic justice is sometimes complicit in these systems too: how it overworks its organizers and activists and burns them out, how it prioritizes numbers and stress tests over listening and relationship building. This is a particularly hard truth, but it’s one that so many of the organizers who come to our sessions, nearly all womxn and gender nonconforming folks, have shared. Our workshops offer the space to name it, and to plan together how to organize beyond it.
We already have the tools we need to dismantle the system. Judith Herman and Aurora Levins Morales tell us that trauma isolates. And that to move beyond it, to heal, we need…solidarity. We need to tell our stories to each other, and we need to stand by each other’s side and demand better. And what is solidarity if not the heart of the labor movement? We have to give ourselves the space to dream of a better future, and then work together to discover the tools to build that future. This is work that can only be done in community, and I am grateful for and humbled by the incredible folks who hold that space with me. As time goes forward, we hope to build this new model of organizing into a movement within the movement – we are planning more workshops, a workbook, retreats. We are planting seeds and watching them grow.
I keep a charred piece of wood in a ceramic bowl on my desk, along with a small oblong seed. The wood is from the site of the arson, set by white supremacists, that burned down the archives at the Highlander Center, taken respectfully at the moment of a glorious golden sunrise behind the Smokies. The seed is a sacred gift from a Navajo comrade resisting the sale of indigenous land to a mining corporation at the holy site of Oak Flat. Together, these are a testament to the strength of those who came before me, those I fight alongside, and the power of unity and solidarity – and a reminder that if we keep pushing, we will fulfil the words of labor’s old anthem and truly bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old.
I’m ready. It’s beyond time.
Elizabeth Pellerito (she/her) is the Director of the Labor Education Program at the University of Massachusetts Lowell and co-founder of the collective Healing Not Harming, which builds trauma-informed organizing strategies for the labor movement. She has developed and facilitated workshops on organizing, union-building, leadership, sexual harassment, and violence in the workplace to a wide audience of workers in unions, workers’ centers, and other organizations. She is also a board member of the Women’s Institute for Leadership Development.