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Tituba’s Revenge: organizing and advocacy for not-for-profit workers

December 23rd, 2011     by Meg Pirie     Comments

One of the greatest achievements of neoliberalism is the ways in which the state’s role shifted from caretaker to CFO. This ostensibly seamless transition saw the rise of the not-for-profit/non-profit sector (I use the terms interchangeably in this post), stepping in to provide necessary social services that were once the responsibility of our governments and elected officials. In other words, governments need not-for-profits, and not-for-profits, which might receive some funding form government agencies and need to comply with municipal by-laws, often prop-up governments without tackling the root causes of systemic marginalization. But perhaps the greatest achievement of all is a widespread perception and banal acceptance that this is a relationship between citizens and government that has always ‘been there’ and that no other alternative exists.

This economic system founded on quantifiable outputs, results, and unfettered accumulation has seen the transformation of many not-for-profits from radical origins to mainstream models that mirror businesses. And while I’m not saying that all not-for-profits are bureaucratic houses of mirrors, they are workplaces and all workplaces are open to labour abuse.

Moreover, not-for-profits do not exist in isolation; they’re part of a broader system of power and resistance. How these organizations elect to navigate said system varies. Some remain radical; others not so much. Regardless, labour abuses within this sector are relatively overlooked.

With this in mind, the formation of Tituba’s Revenge earlier this year–a New York City collective comprised of anti-capitalist non-profit for workers who are predominantly queer women of colour–couldn’t be more timely. An ongoing working project, Tituba’s Revenge is dedicated to, in part,

* dispelling myths about non-profits
* redressing the current vacuum of analysis devoted to exploitative conditions within this feminized sector
* highlighting the ways in which many non-profits help to reproduce capitalism
* facilitating strategies for workplace organizing

The collective is named after Tituba, a Black Caribbean woman brought to Salem, Massachusetts as a slave and later persecuted during the Salem Witch Trials for her use of African healing rituals. In this way, the act of naming is a powerful one: it gives voice to an individual lived experience and highlights shared histories of resistance.

Their first pamphlet was just released (PDF link) and in short, it’s amazing. While there are numerous discussion points, I want to highlight the following areas:

Myth of Caring Workers: I can’t stress the importance of this enough. A pervasive and ultimately violent perception surrounds the not-for-profit sector that at once fetishizes these workers as ‘above’ material comforts and re-imagines their existence as ascetic yet noble. The sexism that belies this assumption, however, is there. A feminized sector often lacking in resources and comprised primarily of women–women, of course, having a boundless capacity for nurturing–this Myth of Caring Workers demands that completion of one’s work requires a reliance on one’s emotional capacity as a facilitator/counsellor/organizer/all of the above. This leads to burn-out. Yet if you work for minimum wage without benefits or sick leave, taking time to recharge and self-care is simply not viable.

Professionalization: The rise of bureaucratic structures in many, especially larger non-profits have led to ballooning requirements and qualifications, be they job experience or academic credentials. Make no mistake: this is class warfare. Requiring, for instance, that applicants possess a vehicle - commonplace in my hometown - is also class warfare. These sorts of requirements tend to reinforce the status quo rather than critique it, so individuals in managerial positions are often white, middle-class, able-bodied and well-educated in the Western sense of the word. To quote the folks at Tituba’s Revenge: “These processes are meant to maintain the class division between the nonprofit workers and the clients, preventing them from building mutual support and networks.”

Combine these two factors and you have a highly competitive, hierarchical workplace that divides workers. No matter how noble the labour one performs, a livable wage and collective bargaining are rights we all deserve.

And this is where workplace organizing becomes so significant. The emotional nature of non-profit work, for many, opens the doors to manipulation and exploitation. In spite of the fact that many of us, non-profit labourers or not, experience this sort of abuse on the job, we tend to think of exploitation as an action and experience that exists solely in the physical realm. So, whether this organizing metamorphoses into a union membership drive or an advocacy committee that addresses equity issues, knowing that it is all right to love one’s work but loathe the conditions is a valuable, validating step. Knowing that is alright to articulate this experience is an equally valuable, validating step.

I recently read a quote from German anarchist Gustav Landauer that sums up our current experiences surrounding labour, and that of many not-for-profit workers, perfectly:

The State is a condition, a certain relationship between human beings, a mode of behaviour; we destroy it by contracting other relationships, by behaving differently toward one another… We are the State and we shall continue to be the State until we have created the institutions that form a real community.

We need to take back our relationship to labour, as defined by neoliberal states. One way is forging dialogue, acknowledging privilege, and learning to listen to our peers. By forming viable, participatory, grassroots communities, we can take part in something radical that is bigger than ourselves and extends beyond immediate gains. What shape these communities take and their as-yet-unformed ideals are ultimately up to us. We shake off the tunnel vision and myopia The State requires of us, and just like Dorothy, we begin to see our surroundings in technicolour. But this is work, and it comes with responsibility. And so you stand at a cliff’s edge. But if we hold hands and jump together - like Tituba’s Revenge - then maybe our journey towards these burgeoning communities will become as significant as the destination.

If you would like to read more about collective organizing and bargaining, stay tuned for Shameless’ labour issue, hitting newsstands in January!

Tags: activist report, on the job

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