Lessons for DEI from Union Organizing

Here is a talk I just gave on what we can learn about how to enact cultural change in academia from the nuts and bolts of labor union organizing. Approximate script below!

Hello, and thank you for being at my talk today, and thank you to the SSB diversity committee for inviting me to speak at this symposium! My name is Ambika and I’m a postdoc at UC Berkeley, soon to be faculty at CU Boulder. I’m also a member of UAW Local 5810 and am excited to soon be a member of United Campus Workers Colorado though I should be absolutely clear that everything I’m saying today comes from my individual perspective, and is not spoken on behalf of these unions.

My talk today is about how our approaches to work in the realm of diversity, equity, and inclusion, or DEI can perhaps benefit from the principles underlying labor union organizing. This talk is based on an essay I wrote about a year ago, which you can find on my blog, at this link.

I became really serious about DEI in 2014 during grad school, where I ran workshops, wrote blogposts, and volunteered as a liaison with more centralized efforts at the university, all with the intention of beginning as many conversations amongst my peers as I could about the importance of DEI. Which is to say that, for a while now, I have been committed to the work of creating diverse, inclusive, just, and equitable spaces in which we can do academic research. And I’m sure that many of you who are listening as well share in this deep commitment.

And yet, I am coming to understand that many of us have wildly different approaches to this work that we so deeply believe in. This variation in strategy has become apparent to me as DEI work has grown more widespread within academia, and as DEI statements have become commonplace across various levels of hiring.

Simultaneously, through becoming an active labor union organizer, I have come to a new understanding of how we are doing this work of changing our institutions for the better, which I want to share with you today.

Labor unions are a long-established way of bringing about positive change in the workplace. For decades, they have made tremendous strides in diversifying workplaces, by engaging in collective bargaining for better working conditions that include protections for workers from discrimination and harassment, and using collective power to push for legislative advances. I am not going to be talking about those broader political processes today. Rather, I want to talk more about the nuts and bolts of some strategies that underly the process of actually organizing to build collective power, and put those into the context of DEI.

I am going to make four main points, and go into each of them in a little depth. And I think a lot of what I’m saying, many of you may already know or feel to be true, I just hope that putting them all into one place helps to make our shared vision a little more concrete.

First is the basic premise of labor organizing: that workers know best, that the people involved in the day-to-day activities of the workplace are well-positioned to have excellent ideas on how that workplace should function. In the context of research labs, for example, this means that grad students, undergrad research assistants, lab technicians and postdocs may have unique and often better insights into how research takes place than a PI, a dean, or a university president. In the context of DEI, the message of this point is: the people affected by the culture of an institution need to have real power in deciding how that culture needs to change.

So for those of us doing the work of DEI, at some point, it’s going to be important for us to reflect realistically on the extent of our power, the situations in which we are, in labor-union-speak, workers or management. And the message is different for the two.

So if you are a worker, someone with less individual power in an institution, I want to tell you that your voice and your demands matter, and you can make them matter more by coming together. Coming together means articulating what you think needs changing and ALSO talking to your peers about their thoughts, finding common ground, and then making demands with a unified voice. Giving everyone a chance to voice their thoughts does not mean that everyone will get what they want, including you. But the more transparent you are about your decision-making processes, the more you all will feel heard and the more likely you will all commit to working towards the eventual outcome, even if it’s not exactly what you all envisioned. You do have to agree enough, though, that you can put forward real and concrete demands to the people with power.

And if you are closer to being management, someone with more individual power, the message to you is, simply, move out of the way. Work to support demands made by those with less power than you. Listen, ask good questions, and work to understand where these demands are coming from, then ask how you can help.

All of this means that, whether you are a worker or management, the outcome of your DEI efforts will be different than you initially imagined, that you lose tight control over the outcome. But, what you have instead of control is input and investment from stakeholders across the institution in your endeavor, which makes it more likely to succeed.

Second, local context matters tremendously. What works for one lab, department, or university may not work for another. While we can be inspired by what others have done and certainly can and should find ways to work together, we also may need to come to our own solutions or adapt solutions to our local contexts.

This leads me to a very specific critique of how we use DEI statements during hiring in academia. I’m going to take as an example the rubric for assessing DEI statements from my own institution, UC Berkeley, where they say that the highest number of points should be assigned to a candidate who “Identifies existing programs they would get involved with” and “Clearly formulates new ideas for advancing equity and inclusion at Berkeley”. I applaud the intention here of demanding specific actions rather than vague platitudes, but I’d actually suggest that this part of the rubric is counter-productive, because a candidate for a job who is not aware of local context cannot genuinely be expected to know how they can best improve that context. So this rubric actually encourages candidates to make guesses about institutions that they cannot yet know from within, and to make claims that they don’t know if they can back up, simply for the sake of checking off a box.

In contrast, what we learn from organizing is that your effectiveness at bringing about change depends on how you are situated, your specific connections, in a particular setting. This brings us another really important lesson—every single one of us can have a role to play in this work of cultural change, precisely because of our unique positions and connections. And the best way to leverage these connections in the direction of equity and justice is by joining in the work with those who share your vision of the kind of institution you want to build.

My problems with this rubric also lead directly to my third point, which is that the work of change is usually not glamorous or even especially novel.

So when our rubrics focus on new and big ideas, they don’t necessarily select for the those crucial people who can repeatedly identify and then act upon opportunities, often tiny opportunities, to push in the direction of justice. What we learn from organizing is that the work of cultural change involves speaking up, often in small ways, over and over again. It involves participating and successfully persuading others to participate, over and over again, because you have a shared vision for the kind of workplace you want to create and you are willing to put in the work to create it.

So how can we shift hiring to reflect this? One option is to give candidates prompts for their DEI statements that encourage them to describe small and repeated contributions, explaining their intended impact in the context of a broader vision of the kind of culture they are working towards. Another option is to ask candidates to write brief responses that describe how they would act in particular situations that you present them with. These situations could be a real problem that you in your department have encountered. By giving people local context and asking them how they would engage with that situation, you have the opportunity to seek out people that will contribute positively to your collective efforts. And at promotion, instead of or in addition to an individual letter, candidates could submit a letter from members of the department (not just other faculty but also students, staff, and other affiliates) that describes how the candidate has contributed to the collective efforts and goals of the department in improving equity and inclusion.

And finally, this whole endeavor of changing culture within academia is not going to be risk free. For all of us, in some contexts, the incentives we are presented with are not going to align with what we need to do to chip away at systems of oppression. And I think this is often a sticking point when people consider whether or not to join into DEI efforts—we want the incentives to be aligned in ways that allow this work to be easy. And while we can certainly fight for them to be that way, we cannot expect it to be that way already, without hard work. AND, most importantly, this work is easier if we don’t do it alone—the risk is lower when we act together.

So in sum, I think the lessons for DEI that I take away from labor organizing are that workers know best, local context matters and your position in that context matters, YOUR small and repeated actions matter so you don’t need to worry about being a hero, and there is risk to the work of changing our institutions but we can lessen the risk when we work together.

I want to thank Didem, Lydia, and Ned for their feedback, and also point you to a newly launched initiative called Collective Action for Better Science (not yet live), where we discuss the power of all of us working together to improve working conditions across science, and so improve the science that we do—I hope to see you there.

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