Queering the Labor Movement

Queering the Labor Movement

Unions should draw lessons from queer activism about how to sustainably, even joyfully build power.


I organize for the Service Employees International Union. I’m thrilled to be a part of a surging labor movement, but I’m not blind to our failures. SEIU is a low-wage workers’ union—in St. Louis, we organize janitors, concession workers, lunch ladies, and adjunct faculty. These are all jobs dominated by women and people of color. Yet our leaders, both in our union staff and among our members, are mostly men.

I work with adjunct faculty at four area colleges, and I got involved with our union as an adjunct myself. Everything I know about organizing I have learned by talking to and reading work by other organizers as I scramble to figure out what I’m doing. So this is a confession as much as it is an accusation. My units began as male-dominated hierarchies, and I’m working with my members to imagine a new way. I now believe adjuncts and other workers can take lessons from queer activist movements to help them reshape what work means, what winning means, and who participates in the struggle for a more just workplace.

One of my schools is about to enter contract negotiations, and I have been holding frequent meetings and making countless phone calls. I follow the best organizing guidelines that I know of and search for what’s known as “organic leaders.” They’re the individuals whose names their coworkers know, to whom other workers take their problems and questions, and whom colleagues feel could influence management. I identify and train them and other adjuncts in organizing strategies and then leave control of the union and its processes to the workers.

This unit consists of 138 part-time adjuncts, about 100 of whom are women. We now have an active bargaining committee consisting of five men, one nonbinary person, and five women. That’s not proportional, but it’s superficially pleasing. But the women often need to be convinced to join the bargaining committee. One thinks she’s too old—that her needs are not representative of the unit since she is retired from other work and has a pension. Another thinks her full-time staff job at a different university makes her adjunct work an anomaly. I explain that their situations, though unique, are also aspects of this job. Many adjuncts believe they are in their last semester of this work, though most stay on for much longer than they had hoped. And since it’s gig work, people typically combine it with other side hustles, hoping that the combined income can pay their bills. The men didn’t need that extra push to join committees—men often don’t need to be told that their experiences are representative. They’re the default norm after all.

To fix this problem, we must reevaluate how we understand power in the labor movement. In addition to the already gendered factors like interest and availability, I believe our organizing model contributes to this imbalance. The first thing organizers learn is how to find organic leaders at a job site. But the strategies we use to identify them trouble me. We ask: Who has the respect of their coworkers? Who can move them to act? Who has followers? Organizers learn not to simply pick out the most talkative people or the ones who seem most pro-union, but instead ask whom everybody looks up to. The organizer then verifies that this person is a leader by testing whether they can get a high percentage of their workers to take some meaningful risk—like say, wear a pro-union button at work. If they can, the campaign is off and running, built on the skills and energy of these leaders.

Adjuncts, like many low-wage, contingent workers, are predominantly women, and my members are more likely to be people of color than the full-time, tenure-track professors they work alongside. Frankly, many are middle-aged women who are dismissed, even by themselves, as talkative and tedious. If a man (cis, white, serious) says something, his words carry an authority in that setting, even if what he is saying has been said by others. It doesn’t take a committed anti-racist feminist with a radar for unconscious bias to observe that workers are likely to find leadership in white men.

I’ve identified, and worked with, several white male leaders who do great work with their coworkers but then leave or who demand to be in charge. Their effectiveness is real, but it’s also short-lived. It contributes to a male-dominated labor movement that is too ready to capitulate in exchange for a piece of power. Yet imagining an alternative to this tried-and-true organizing model is a challenge.

The labor movement has always drawn power from queer activism, as Kim Kelly reminds us, particularly tactics for turning stigma into pride. Labor must further develop such community-based organizing strategies to replace our reliance on individual leaders.

Our union bargainer tells adjuncts before they negotiate a contract that the precision of their words and the justice of their arguments don’t matter. All that management cares about is the power that they can demonstrate. The union’s goal isn’t to convince management to act fairly but to make them fear us and protect themselves.

The problem: Nobody fears adjuncts. We work “at will.” Unless we can tie our bargaining to workers with more stability, our only power comes from our allies, usually our students. When adjuncts organize alone, our contracts don’t extend any job security to adjuncts. Though universities rely on the labor of adjunct faculty, they can draw from an essentially limitless pool of desperate workers. There have long been more PhDs granted than there are jobs, and alternative employment is not widely available. Therefore, schools can offer semester-long contracts, knowing that if one professor leaves, many more will rush to fill their space.

If this sounds hopeless, it is, but only so long as we let those who hold power define what power is and how it works. Queers imagine otherwise. Cis-hetero patriarchy has all the power there is, or so it wants us to think. We have all grown up and been educated in a world that naturalizes existing power structures. But if we can get outside that way of thinking, we can see them as fabricated and therefore vulnerable.

University administrators use underpaid adjuncts to precisely match supply and demand and so are unwilling to just give any power to adjuncts. At one meeting between admins and adjuncts, a liberal arts dean told us that when an adjunct previously filed a grievance about his right to his desired schedule, it went to arbitration, and the arbitrator decided in favor of Saint Louis University.

The adjunct sitting next to me teared up. Involuntarily, she squeaked, “But I’m SLU.”

The room went silent. This adjunct had her PhD from SLU and had stayed on to teach there. She felt proud of SLU’s mission and values. Everyone knew that. Some of them profited from it. But power instantiates itself by drawing lines of exclusion, and the queer reaction is to make that strategy visible. This adjunct queered this moment by making her visceral response to exclusion take up space in that room. Instead of swallowing her feelings, she led with herself, thus making power’s mechanisms visible. And that’s the type of leading—both vulnerable and transformative because it emphasizes belonging and refuses fear—that queer organizing makes possible.

Many scholars and activists have argued that over the years organized labor has traded calls for revolution and class consciousness for job security. CUNY professor Stanley Aronowitz, for example, wrote that cyclical recessions, pro-capital legal frameworks, reduction in worker-oriented culture and labor education, and self-serving union leadership cause unions to emphasize job security over everything else. Where once the labor movement fought for control over what work means and how and when it gets done, now too many unions leave all that to management with the reward that existing employees will be retained and given small recurring raises. Gradually, Aronowitz claims, much of the labor movement abandoned the quest for a more just world.

But adjuncts, even organized ones, don’t share this history. Once you have a job, whether that’s in a trade union or on the tenure track, you need to protect it, which tends to make you more conservative. But adjuncts are by definition flexible. When enrollments or full-time faculty whims change, adjuncts are gone. Adjuncts lack job security and thus don’t fear losing what they never had. Freedom from fear can enable adjuncts to be the seed that germinates a new type of organizing.

My queer organizing strategy is to put people into a room and give them time to talk. Organizers are trained to avoid such undirected sharing, because it ostensibly slides into complaining and fuels apathy. But queer sharing avoids this by theatrically demonstrating that power is a fiction deployed by the powerful to protect themselves. For example, adjuncts came to an event dressed as professors—which, of course, is what they are. The adjuncts were cheekily demonstrating that all professors are just people playing a role—putting on a costume.

Another example: One community college has an unusually bad contract and a moribund member base. Fine. We’re in bargaining anyway, with a team that has one art adjunct who has been there forever, has developed relationships with full timers including her department chair, has left work twice to give birth (unpaid and unsupported), and fantasizes about a full-time job maintaining the park near her house. Another adjunct teaches online health information management courses to supplement her day job inputting health data for a major hospital so that she and her husband can afford a retirement home nearer to their children. A third adjunct teaches writing, which, given her disability and her wife’s full-time work, leaves her no time to write the poetry that fuels her. A fourth adjunct works as a tutor in the math lab and teaches statistics and the remedial math curriculum. She’s raising adopted twins who are entering their teen years, and she wishes she had both more available time and money. Our team had a white guy—a sociology PhD and a Desert Storm vet, but he quit because the union wasn’t going in the direction he wanted fast enough.

What’s the moral here? None of my team are traditional leaders; they are isolated, broke, and scared. The poet knits, and they talk about that. One mentions that her classes haven’t been assigned for the coming semester, which means she may not have any income. They each describe their departments course assignments, timelines, and policies. That these are so different show them what they share: Adjuncts have no control over the most basic facts of their work and their lives.

Adjuncts at this school currently make $2,700 per class, and they can teach as many as seven per year, counting summer. Their pay caps at $19,000 yearly, with no health insurance or retirement contributions. It’s rare for their schedule to fill up to this maximum, so they often make less. These four, and most other adjuncts, combine several jobs. Yet they would not be working this hard for this pittance if they didn’t need the money desperately. That’s a hard thing to admit for anyone, and these are highly educated professionals expected to look and act like it. And they form emotional attachments to their work and the place where they do it. They serve students, whom they get to know and love, and they present topics that they personally and professionally value. These factors explain why it feels so icky to be reminded of how thoroughly and casually the college dismisses their preferences and indeed their existence. But when that feeling is shared with others, it doesn’t become shame—it becomes anger. The organizing structure I’ve been taught uses this anger to generate workplace leaders who will agitate other workers, increase workplace solidarity, escalate, and push for change.

But I’ve seen this vision of leadership be hierarchical and self-limiting. If we lean on individual leaders, they often only stick around if they get results. Even if that does happen, it leads to top-down, masculinized structures that then need to be challenged. Instead, a queer-influenced organizing would focus on identifying workers who find joy in community-building and who listen to the stories of other workers. Queer activism centers pleasure and refuses fear. It uses camp and parody, and flouts norms in order to poke fun at power. The labor movement needs this energy; it’s more fun, more sustainable, and therefore more effective.

The studio-art adjunct in our group works with color and fiber. She watched the poet knitting and commented on the creative reuse of the result: taking a thread and turning it into a garment. The poet responded that it’s not an efficient or even economic method of garment production, and yet it’s meaningful. Someone asked why, and she said, “I see a result. I kind of know that I’m here. That I’m doing something material with my time. Something beautiful. Made with my time that marks its passing, but not for a purpose really.”

Then, the medical data adjunct said what we were all thinking: “That’s like what we’re doing here. It takes a ton of our time, accomplishes very little, yet feels significant somehow.”

Nobody these days knits just to produce a sweater. People knit because it feels good in the moment—the colors and texture and result being gradually revealed. And because it links us to generations of (mostly) women who did this.

I try to organize like that. I knit. I don’t seek out “organic leaders.” I seek threads and unproductive pleasures. I feed resistance. I listen. I don’t lead, but I witness.

Is this effective? Do adjuncts get better contracts? Only marginally, at least in the short term. But the workers feel less alone, like they are helping others. It’s tempting to think of that as a soft win or to yearn for something more material and measurable. But the shortcomings of those “successes” are what we’re living with now in organized labor: Men in charge, minimal improvements, lots of turnover as these leaders realize they’re not heroes. If we stick with a knitting model that renounces individual strength in favor of community, and we give it time, something new and more powerful might emerge.

Dear reader,

I hope you enjoyed the article you just read. It’s just one of the many deeply-reported and boundary-pushing stories we publish everyday at The Nation. In a time of continued erosion of our fundamental rights and urgent global struggles for peace, independent journalism is now more vital than ever.

As a Nation reader, you are likely an engaged progressive who is passionate about bold ideas. I know I can count on you to help sustain our mission-driven journalism.

This month, we’re kicking off an ambitious Summer Fundraising Campaign with the goal of raising $15,000. With your support, we can continue to produce the hard-hitting journalism you rely on to cut through the noise of conservative, corporate media. Please, donate today.

A better world is out there—and we need your support to reach it.


Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

Ad Policy