How we work together

The speaker was a young, white middle-class woman, a lawyer and an academic, explaining her work at the US National Labour Relations Board, and setting it in the context of US labour relations over the last century and a half. We were crowded into the largest room of Maryhouse Catholic Worker in Manhattan, on a Friday night at the end of January.

During the Q&A following the talk, a voice came from the back of the hall, from an older white man, with a working-class New York accent. He told us that he'd begun his working life moving, and maintaining, large payroll calculating machines (operated by women) used in department stores. He named the particular machines he'd been involved with, their serial numbers, and gave the number of keys on their keyboards. After a detailed account of the machines he'd worked with in his youth (with some of their pros and cons), he made his general point, which was that technology had changed out of all recognition during his life, and young people now had vastly more computing power in their phones than had been in the calculating machines of those long-ago years.

Earlier, the speaker had been talking about how with Uber taxis and Airbnb room rentals and other online casual services, protection for workers had weakened. She repeated her point, and then moved quickly onto another question.

Some young men sitting next to me had been shifting impatiently during the older man's story about calculating machines. When the speaker briefly acknowledged his contribution, they laughed quietly and knowingly at the older working-class man. There was a sense of collusion, of a group of people who knew how to talk in these kinds of meetings, laughing at someone who didn't know the rules.

For me, there was irony in the fact that we were in a meeting about the importance of the organised working class in making society better, and middle-class people were dismissing, and actually laughing at, a contribution from a lifelong working-class man. His crime was that he did not talk in the abstract; he did not use long complicated words. Instead he was specific and concrete and he rooted what he had to say in his own experience - while connecting to wider issues.

In my life as an activist, I've had a slow awakening to the fact that there are unspoken rules operating in activist circles, and very often (in the circles I've mixed in) these reinforce middle-class values and behaviour. Maybe I was slow to realise because I had a middle-class upbringing and went to university.

One early sign of this for me was about agendas and meeting structure and interruption. Through my twenties, I had become more and more convinced that meetings needed carefully-prepared agendas, and that groups needed to follow agendas rigorously if they wanted to be effective and efficient (the two things went together), and that as part of this there should be no interrupting or talking over what someone else was saying.

Then I started reading about successful community organising, including Tony Gibson's account of rambling community get-togethers which were more like family conversations than 'business meetings', and which were part of highly-successful 'Planning for Real' projects where local people were not only putting forward ideas for local development, but were jointly deciding with local officials what should happen in their area.

Now in my fifties, I still believe meetings need careful preparation to make them effective, but I've come to see that 'effectiveness' is not the same thing as 'efficiency' in the sense of clinically following a logical plan from A to B to C without deviation or interruption. Gathering the wisdom of a group may mean circling around, it may mean story-telling, it may mean people interrupting each other.

I've learned some flexibility from Training for Change in the USA, who've helped me realise that not-interrupting/waiting-your-turn-to-speak is a middle-class politeness norm, not a fundamental moral law.

When it's enforced as a moral law, especially in the form of the 'stack', this 'rule' can work against a group, it can in the worst cases kill a group's forward momentum. The 'stack' is a procedure that some people follow: when a meeting is going on, and people raise their hands to indicate that they want to speak, and the facilitator takes down people's names, in the order that she has seen them raise their hands. And then she calls them to speak in that order (the 'stack').

What that can lead to is a disjointed series of monologues, where the group doesn't get to thrash out any particular point, because people don't follow on from each other, each new person makes a new point, or maybe they are responding to something said five minutes ago which has almost been forgotten.

The middle-class wait-your-turn-to-speak norm can sometimes be really helpful to a group. It can also, if strictly policed, lead to inefficient, ineffective meetings that drag on to no point.

This rule might also stop people speaking who are from working-class or poor backgrounds who are used to a more informal conversational style of talking together.

Betsy Leondar-Wright of Class Action has done a lot in her books Class Matters and Missing Class to show us that there are different class cultures at work in groups working for peace and justice, and not paying attention to them can prevent us forming powerful cross-class movements for change.

That is something that should trouble all of us who are concerned about the large issues of today, and especially to those who want to see more powerful labour movements making decisive contributions to creating a better world, where the experiences and insights of working-class people are the foundation for change, rather than something to laugh at.

Milan Rai is the editor of Peace News. His multi-issue interview with Betsy Leondar-Wright starts here:
The Class Action 'Activist Class Cultures' website is here: