I recently interviewed a legendary labor organizer, Jono Shaffer, who was instrumental in the decades-long Justice for Janitors campaign. Justice For Janitors’ success was remarkable, because they were working in unbelievably hostile conditions. Everything was stacked against them. First, they started during the late ’80s, a particularly bad time for American labor. Second, the Los Angeles janitors that Shaffer was working with were largely undocumented immigrants who worked for private cleaning contractors. Their immigration status meant that the workers had a lot to lose by challenging their employers, and the fact that their employers were contractors meant that even if a group of janitors had succeeded at getting a union at the company they worked for, the building owner could have just fired the cleaning company and gotten a non-union one instead.
And yet J4J succeeded in getting huge gains for janitors in the building services industry in Los Angeles. There were, in Shaffer’s explanation, a few reasons for that. One reason is that instead of trying to organize at particular cleaning companies, they had a strategy that targeted those who ultimately held power—the building owners. But J4J was also creative in its tactics, and was willing to be confrontational and disruptive. They staged massive street protests, and won huge public sympathy when a J4J protest was attacked by the LAPD. They got media attention that raised public visibility of the dire working conditions of LA janitors, and that public visibility translated into pressure on building owners. Shaffer told me that even actions that might appear to have been “stunts” (he once went to a building manager’s office dressed as Santa Claus to deliver rubber gloves, to highlight the company’s denial of basic safety equipment to its cleaning staff) were actually important because they helped the public understand what the issues were and turned mass opinion against the owners.
I couldn’t help but recall what Shaffer said about the importance of confrontation, spectacle, and disruption when reading about the actions of Tennessee state legislators Justin Jones and Justin Pearson, who were briefly expelled from the legislature by Republicans after staging a protest over gun violence alongside a third legislator, Gloria Johnson (who was not expelled for reasons that have not persuasively been explained but can be surmised). A New York Times profile of “the Justins” says that they have brought “an impatient, confrontational style of protest into their roles as lawmakers—a strategy that has shaken up the Republican-dominated body but also contradicted the more incremental approach favored by veteran politicians in their own party.” The Times presents the Justins as something of an anachronism, saying that Pearson “evokes the image of a 1960s activist in both appearance and manner,” Pearson’s natural hair being considered a sign of ’60s-ism. The Times quotes Jones saying that when the two young legislators first arrived at the State House, “Everyone kind of kept their head down and told us to do the same, you know, to assimilate, to conform.” Indeed, as the expulsion vote was being prepared, a colleague warned that “there’s always a time to protest and there’s a certain way you can do it, but in any environment you go into, you must know the rules” and said it was “a lawmaker’s duty to be effective.”
Well, it turned out that the protest was pretty damned effective. The Wall Street Journal concluded that “all three [legislators] gained the upper hand in a debate that was meant to crush them and has instead made them,” and “political strategists and analysts in Tennessee say the two men have leveraged their newfound national name recognition to build deeper political support in the state.” They didn’t just build their personal brands, but they drew attention to the Republican failure to do anything about mass shootings, and now “this week, Gov. Bill Lee, a Republican, whose wife lost a friend in the shooting, called for the legislature to take up a measure that would give courts the ability to restrict someone’s ability to access guns if the person is deemed dangerous, and signed an executive order intended to strengthen background checks.”
There is a major misconception in politics that being loud, angry, and confrontational is the opposite of being “pragmatic,” and that people who “want to get things done” must be collegial and not make waves. In fact, this is entirely wrong. The successful social movements of ages past have always succeeded by breaking the rules of decorum—but not arbitrarily or thoughtlessly. The Civil Rights movement of the ’50s and ’60s succeeded in part through blatantly illegal protests that called attention to the injustice of the existing rules. Shaffer told me that labor struggles that work within legal frameworks are going to have a very hard time succeeding, because the law is stacked against workers. The law, he said, is by definition a tool to uphold the status quo, so anyone who wants to change that status quo is going to have to be open to the idea of breaking rules when it’s morally and tactically necessary to do so.
Politicians who will not confront their colleagues over the clearest moral issues of our time are destined to be uninspiring as well as ineffective. There’s something powerfully energizing about seeing Rep. Jamaal Bowman, for instance, getting angry about the deaths of children in mass shootings, to the point of being willing to call his Republican colleagues cowards. I want to be represented by someone who actually has some fight in them.
When I’ve interviewed successful left politicians like Seattle city council member Kshama Sawant and Rhode Island state senator Sam Bell, they’ve told me the same thing: You do not win by keeping your head down and going along with your colleagues. That’s how you lose and get nothing done. You win by drawing attention to the important issues. (More detail about how Sawant has used confrontational tactics to win concrete gains like the $15 minimum wage and a tax on Amazon can be found in this excellent article by Jordan Bollag.) Bell, writing recently for this magazine, gives a very clear example of the difference: he points out that because Democrats, including the members of the “Squad,” were unwilling to take on their colleagues to maintain Medicaid benefits, there are now going to be huge cuts in Medicaid benefits. Nobody drew public attention to the issue until it was too late. It passed by quietly. That wouldn’t have been the case if someone had been willing to stand up and refuse to be quiet. It would have been incredibly helpful for millions of people on Medicaid for just one member of the House to do what the Tennessee state senators did and break the rules of decorum in order to draw attention to an unconscionable policy. Sadly, the progressive House member with the highest profile, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, has gone from joining sit-ins in Nancy Pelosi’s office to being “more subdued and party-line-toeing.” I’m sure her colleagues have worked very hard to convince her this makes her more “effective.” In fact, it means that she will eventually disappear almost entirely from public view, which is precisely what the party leaders want.
“The ’60s” get a pretty unfairly negative reputation. People like Pete Buttigieg and Barack Obama use “’60s” as a kind of pejorative, to suggest an irrational utopian radicalism. In fact, the activists of the ’60s achieved some of the most important social and political progress in the history of human civilization. They shattered the Jim Crow regime, they put massive cracks in the patriarchy, they ultimately helped to force an end to the atrocity of the Vietnam War (and restrained the U.S. use of illegitimate military force for the next several decades), and they pushed LGBTQ rights into the mainstream. They certainly did not do it by accepting that there’s a time to protest and a time to follow the rules. Instead, they followed the slogan of May ‘68 in France: Be realistic, demand the impossible. Shaffer says that Justice For Janitors succeeded in part because, at a time when labor organizations were following tame, meek, completely legal tactics, J4J looked back to the ’60s and the methods of the United Farm Workers. Media figures may be dismissive of Justin Pearson for wearing Malcolm X glasses and speaking in the cadences of Martin Luther King Jr., but I say: Good. Those are the right models. The great Black radical tradition, of which X and King were both a part, is precisely what this country needs a dose of today.
PHOTO: Rep. Justin Pearson, D-Memphis, raises his fists as he leaves the House chamber after he is expelled from the legislature, April 6, 2023. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)