On Possibilities and Organizing: An Interview with Labor Activist James Thindwa

By Alice Kim, Editor, Praxis Center

James Thindwa is a long time labor and political activist who is currently the Great Lakes Community Engagement Coordinator for the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). Prior to that, he was the Executive Director of Chicago Jobs with Justice, a labor-community coalition.Here, he talks to Praxis Center about the possibilities of organizing for workers’ rights and a more just world.

Alice Kim: First let’s get some background on you. Tell us your political history. How and when did you become politicized?

Photo Credit: Chicago Jobs With Justice

James Thindwa: My early political experiences were really almost by osmosis, growing up in a politically charged environment in Southern Africa. I grew up in Zimbabwe and at the time there was an anti-colonial struggle going on with major political parties – black political parties – taking on the struggle to dislodge the colonial rulers. The short history is that Zimbabwe was Rhodesia and it was under British rule. In 1965, the British were in the process of liberating, of conferring independence to its colonies, and the white people in Zimbabwe decided they didn’t want that, they didn’t want to give up the country so they declared their own independence from Great Britain, which essentially made them the new colonial masters. So it became this white ruled country outside of Great Britain that declared the Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI).

I was 10 years old when UDI was declared. Almost immediately a black liberation struggle was formed. All the political parties that had heretofore tried to engage in contact and dialogue to gain independence, they felt they had no choice but to declare war. So there was a war from 1965 to1979. These were formative years. I saw black leadership step up to take on the struggle for independence. I watched, as a kid, a lot of the violence aimed at political leaders, assassinations, and police firing into crowds of people who were peacefully protesting. It was very difficult to avoid being affected by those events. So I would say that more than anything else put me on a course to become active.

AK: You have been an organizer in various capacities for decades now, a seasoned veteran in movement building….

JT: Since 1982 officially, but I came to the U.S. in 1974 and almost immediately became involved in campus activism. There were two international struggles that I got involved in. One was the independence movement in Zimbabwe but also the anti-apartheid struggle. I was a student organizer, and did quite a bit of work in Kentucky and Ohio doing public education on the situation in Zimbabwe. There was an international boycott underway so I joined with a lot of student organizations. I went to college in Kentucky about a hundred twenty miles from Cincinnati where my uncle and aunt lived. My uncle was a professor and their house became a center of organizing – the students, professors, figuring out how to support struggle back home. It was intense politicization. My uncle – he was an historian – was a sought after speaker in churches and union halls. Sometimes I accompanied him and sometimes I did it by myself, being asked to speak, so I got involved in that as well.

AK: What sustains you, how do you stay inspired?

JT: I may just be a naturally optimistic person. My friends sometimes accuse me of seeing everything in rose colors. If you’re pessimistic, you really can’t be an organizer. By implication, if you’re an organizer, you believe in possibility. I think it just may be engrained, but quite frankly, I’ve seen people who had nothing willing to give it all. I think of people in Colombia where being a union activist is a dangerous job – you face assassination – so when I find myself feeling down and overworked, I just think about an organizer trying to navigate the dangers of organizing in a place like Colombia. I try to put it in perspective. We are doing organizing in a relatively privileged environment in the United States. It’s not comparable to what a lot of people are going through in the world to bring about social change.

And I really believe that organizing pays off. There’s not one single social or political gain that we enjoy today that was not a product of social movements. When people organize and do so in a coordinated, thoughtful, strategic way, we produce results. If you told me ten years ago that the President of the United States would be endorsing marriage equality, I would have laughed at you. But the steadfast, persistent organizing of the gay community in the U.S. has been astonishing.

We still have a long way to go, as we keep being reminded by events in Ferguson and New York City, but we are in a much better place than we were in 1950. Some might debate that, but I would challenge anybody to prove that. I think there’s no contradiction in saying that we are in a better place because of the civil rights struggle and also saying that we haven’t gone as far as we need to.

AK: We’ve seen important campaigns around the country from fast-food workers demanding an increase in their minimum wage and a right to form a union to charter school teachers organizing, which you’ve done, to the historic Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) strike several years ago. Would you say that organized labor is experiencing a successful resurgence in recent years? And what was the impact of the CTU strike on the labor movement?

JT: I think the capitalists in the U.S. have made a huge mistake: their willingness to marginalize everybody.

And the impact of the CTU strike was huge. What you’re seeing, the energy around the fight for 15, the organizing campaigns for service workers, are workers themselves who saw what happened in Chicago and are asking questions: why isn’t my local, why isn’t my president, why isn’t my union organizing like CTU did? I hear it a lot when I travel in the Great Lakes region where I work as the Community Engagement Coordinator for AFT. When CTU happened, a lot of workers were saying to me, anonymously some of them, privately off the record, we would like to see our union start mobilizing like they did. I think that [the strike] inspired workers to put pressure on their own unions to fight harder. A number of AFT locals from LA to Newark to New York – we’ve seen them elect progressive leadership – and that’s coming from the Chicago inspiration.

As an organizer, part of what I like to make people come aware of is that we don’t take a black and white view of what a victory is. Some people are saying, you guys mobilized 50,000 in the street in Chicago and yet they closed the schools anyway, maybe organizing and rallying doesn’t work. People can lose sight of what organizing is about when they don’t put it in a larger context.

We learn to see silver linings where they might not be apparent. For example, the 30,000 teachers who mobilized and organized in their schools, can you imagine what that’s done to the political landscape in Chicago in preparation for the upcoming mayoral race? Thousands of teachers found their voice in this moment. That movement has produced hundreds of new activists, folks who have transformed the political landscape in Chicago. The next mayor of Chicago, even if Rahm Emanuel gets re-elected, might have to govern differently because of this new political energy. The best-case scenario is that this new energy is going to produce a different kind of mayor. If Karen Lewis gets elected, it will be in no small measure because of the strike.

AK: Too often, organizers and activists work in silos on their particular issues. Yet, historically labor struggles have valued the idea and practice of solidarity. What does meaningful solidarity mean to you?

JT: Meaningful solidarity implies a paradigm shift from transactionalism – the shift from relationships that are based on transactions – you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. Where community folks might show up to a labor rally to express solidarity, the union in turn shows up at the community’s annual banquet.  There’s a history in which some of these relationships are transactional relationships.

Meaningful solidarity means you really engage in transformational relationships. And what does that mean? Community and labor see each other as equals. Nobody is the expert that knows more than the other. We sit down together, create strategies together, we are continually involved in campaigns together, like the Fight for 15. We’re actually in a partnership that is ongoing, more strategic, and not just temporary.

AK: At this moment, Ferguson has once again revealed to us the myth of a post-racial society. Race remains an overwhelming factor in how you get to live your life, and African Americans in particular continue to be targets of police violence. In what ways can the labor movement take a stand against police violence?

JT: In New York City, the AFT organized a rally with the National Action Network, with Rev Al Sharpton, to protest the killing of Eric Garner. I’m not going to say it was the first time, but it was exceptional in terms of the high profile way this rally was organized with the united Federation of Teachers in NY. It is unusual in a sense because unions have traditionally avoided the issue of police brutality in part because of the fear of alienating its white membership or alienating the FOP [Fraternal Order of Police].

What’s happening across the country is that there is a small percentage of repeat offenders, police officers who are implicated in these killings. The problem is that the good ones circle the wagons. You have officers who tarnish the image of police departments and it’s made worse by the internal solidarity, the kind of circling of the wagons.

Many of us in the labor movement have been saying for the longest time, that there is a way which unions can actually finesse the statement of solidarity. Can you imagine how transformational it would be if a labor leader stood up and said: we’re here to demand justice, we’re not casting dispersions to the entire police department, in fact we are offering a challenge to good police officers to demand to rule out the bad officers; nobody is attacking the entire police department, however, we are criticizing the culture of circling the wagon, the culture in which good police officers are failing to put pressure on the police departments to weed out those bad cops; what we need is an independent inquiry, we want the names of these officers released who are implicated; we’re standing in solidarity with this family, with this community. That would go a long way to deal with some of the racial tensions between labor unions and community folks and this sense of indifference that many unions are indifferent to the struggles of African American communities.

All unions need to be involved in issues of racial justice not only because it’s the right thing to do but because it’s in their self interest. Many of their union members are black and they need to start speaking out against police brutality.

AK: Last question. Can you share any recent or long-standing lessons you’ve learned from your work as a labor organizer that you think are especially critical for us in the 21st century?

JT: I think that the presumption that I have is that most people are open to progressive politics. In the field of education, I’m often surprised by the extent to which education reformers – notwithstanding the billions of dollars that have been spent trying to privatize public school and push these education reforms – the degree to which they haven’t sealed the deal with American people and community folks. I run into community people who still don’t understand what it’s about and even some of those who have bought into it and drank some of the Kool-Aid, how open many of them are to a new conversation about education. A lot of people are figuring things out for themselves. They’re saying, wait a minute, if they’re closing schools in Chicago because of budgets where is the money to expand charter schools coming from? The huge swath of the body politic is open to progressive ideas. We just need to get to work to make sure they become actively involved.

Praxis Center is dedicating our weekly blog posts to labor issues for the month of September to pay tribute to the labor movement and all working people. Read our previous posts Beyond Economic Development and Remembering May Day on Labor Day.