Can we reframe the conversation to something more positive and forward-looking?
Show a film about class struggle, then put three labor organizers on a post-film panel in a progressive city like Seattle, and it’s inevitable someone is going to ask a question like: “Why do we always have to use the language of fighting and battle? Can’t we reframe the conversation to something more positive and forward-looking?” Sure enough, an audience member raised that question 10 minutes into the Q&A following the Jan. 19 showing of “As Goes Janesville,” part of the Real Change Economic Justice Film Series.
“As Goes Janesville” is a powerful documentary about the rapid decline of a small Wisconsin town after the shutdown of a GM plant in 2009 and the competing economic visions for what it would take to restore prosperity to the community and its residents. Before long, the film homes in on the debacle arising from Gov. Scott Walker’s fierce determination to destroy collective bargaining rights for the state’s public employees. The movie becomes an exposé of the struggle between capital and labor in the 21st century.
While the first two panelists were patient and affirming in response to the question about confrontational language, the third, Pedro Olguin, a Chicano organizer with the Teamsters, was much more direct.
“We’ll speak the language of peace after we have won,” he said. Pedro spoke from his experience growing up in projects and seeing friends shot dead in front of their apartments. He spoke about his daily work trying to stop bosses from squeezing every last ounce of profit out of the sweat of workers. Pedro wasn’t interested in playing Seattle-nice or sanitizing his language to appeal to those it made uncomfortable.
It’s worth considering the extent to which the desire for more positive and less confrontational language is a function of class and race privilege. What I’ve learned in four years of working with vendors at Real Change is that my job as an ally is not to impose my ideas about what it means for them to succeed but to listen to theirs. When I heard Pedro articulate his perspective on the language we use to describe the work of progressive social change, I felt a similar duty to suspend my own beliefs and learn from his.
We progressives shy away from the language of class warfare, but it strikes me that the problem isn’t in the terminology but in the way we define who is at war with whom. Class warfare isn’t simply about poor versus rich. It’s not even about the 99 percent versus the 1 percent. It’s about the struggle against the policies and system that produce such savage inequality. It’s about those who condone and protect the radically unequal distribution of privilege and power versus those who challenge it. Seen through that lens, class warfare isn’t about pitting one individual against another because of differences in demographics or identity but about a group of people waging battle against political ideology. There are wealthy people who can be and are critical allies in the struggle to change the system, just as there are people in the 99 percent who are dead set on preserving it.
The films we show the third Sunday as part of our economic justice film series are deliberately provocative, and the discussions afterward are often charged with energy and emotion. There are two films left: “A Place at the Table,” a compelling look at the millions of Americans dealing with food insecurity, and “Shift Change,” an inspirational film about worker-owned and cooperative businesses. Reserve your free tickets at brownpapertickets.com and join the conversation.