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I am writing to you because I feel like I have landed myself in a situation where it is impossible for me to maintain either my happiness or my integrity, and I am hoping that you will be able to give some firm yet sympathetic advice. I have often read your column when it was in Salon and I feel like if anyone has the right perspective on both matters of the heart and the movement, it is you.
For the last two years I have been an apprentice labor organizer with a union that represents hospitality workers, organizing the hotel that I currently work at as a restaurant host. Although the work is extremely rewarding, it is also emotionally taxing. For a long time I learned to deal with the pressures of the job on my own, relying on my network of friends and my own capability for self-renewal. However, approximately three months ago I started dating a man who used to be a very well-liked cook at my hotel but was fired nine months ago because the chef felt threatened by his popularity — really. In fact, I have organized a lot of my co-workers in part by retelling my boyfriend’s story. In the time since my now-boyfriend left the hotel we continued seeing each other at parties and went from work acquaintances to friends to lovers.
Maybe this sounds naive, but I have never been in love like this before. My boyfriend is a generous, creative, brilliant, charismatic, loving person, who challenges me, listens to me, supports me, and respects me. He makes me feel safe and valued, and I hope I make him feel the same way. We have already talked tentatively about a future together. Something just feels right, and to be honest, I want to marry this man.
After we got together he started looking for a better job, saying he wanted to start saving more money for a house. His English is not perfect, so I helped write a résumé and he got a call-back to be a head chef at a local nursing home. We were ecstatic.
The evening after his interview he talked to me about the job, his soon-to-be boss, and everything that had happened that day for hours like a little kid after the first day of school. Then he took out his interviewer’s business card and I saw the name of the company that was to be his direct employer: a sub-contractor that is public enemy #1 of the union.
My boyfriend is going to be THE head chef in a kitchen for a non-union company that we might organize against in the near future! It is my personal goal to eventually leave the hotel and become a staff organizer in my city — I love organizing workers and it’s what I want to do for the rest of my life. Although it is extremely unlikely, I might have to organize against him some day! Is this a definite deal breaker? Am I overreacting? Do I have to tell my lead organizer about my boyfriend’s new job? She will go crazy. Do they have a right to shut me out? Should I stop organizing for love? Should I try to get hired at a different union?
Part of me feels like I am obligated to leave him, but I also feel like I have a right to my own happiness and being with him is integral to that. He and I kind of laughed off the situation and have made jokes about how we are enemies, but I have downplayed how much the situation is a serious conflict for me. I am so happy for my boyfriend but so sad for myself and the future of our relationship. My heart is broken. What do I do?
Fight or Flight
Dear Fight or Flight,
Your boyfriend is not your enemy. Your boyfriend is just another worker trying to get by. He is a worker pursuing his livelihood in an unregulated labor market. What is he to do? Regulate the labor market himself? Absent himself from this job? His refusal to take this job would have no effect on the central reality. All it would do is put some other schmuck in the job.
What is needed in union work is profound respect for the choices each worker faces. So for now, sit tight. And think. Think about what this means. Working through hard contradictions like this will make you a better organizer.
What is integrity? Integrity is what you maintain in contradiction and complexity. Cops, teachers, lawyers, organizers, workers, artists all face contradictions. The ability to face them and work through them is integrity. The ability not to make black-and-white decisions is integrity. Think of somebody like Martin Luther King, Jr. Was his world simple? Was Walter Reuther’s world simple?
The way to progress is by respecting workers’ rights as independent people. We workers are not pawns to be pushed around either by management or by unions. We are individuals. Our passions are our own. Our passions are holy. Our likes and dislikes, our sexual interests and pleasures, our preferences in food and clothing, our private intellectual interests, our taste in music and architecture, our favorite names for each other, our jokes, the things we dream, these are the realm of the sacred human. No state, no union, boss or government has any business there. The business of business and government is to secure the concrete conditions for life so that life can be lived freely. That is all. They have no business in our personal lives.
The union exists to give workers power in negotiating material conditions. Wages, working hours, benefits, grievance procedures, hiring policies and the like are material matters. They are material and thus can be adjudicated and negotiated.
Romantic relationships are different. They are in the realm of the sacred and the ineffably human, that realm not reducible to work hours and wages, nor to political beliefs.
So as a practical matter and also as a matter of conscience, I suggest you do not tell your superiors in the union or anyone else about your boyfriend’s economic relationships. Where he gets his money is his business, not theirs. Questions of whether they might benefit from knowing, or whether the union might benefit from knowing, are moot. It is none of their business. It is his private life and your relationship with him is your private life.
Should they find out and believe it is relevant to your union work, then you may have a serious difference of opinion with your union boss, serious enough to warrant making a break with him or her and, if her views reflect union policy, a break with that union.
Living with integrity means risking your reputation. Unthinking, unreflective people will jump to conclusions. True believers will jump to conclusions. It may help you clarify your ideas by writing out a workable set of principles regarding your personal friendships and your union activism. Think it through. Test your ideas and your ideals and your feelings against each other.
Here is one thought-test: What if the union had a rule that no union members may have private friendships with non-union workers? What would that say about the union? It would say the union had usurped authority in an area of life that is not its proper concern, making it quasi-totalitarian.
As Hannah Arendt said, “For Nazism, all history is the history of race struggle; and, for Marxism, all history is the history of class struggle.” For some union workers, one might add, all history is the history of labor.
So I think you are on solid ground arguing that, in the first place, your boyfriend’s place of work is his private concern and, in the second place, all union workers must respect individual rights and learn to manage complexity and contradiction.
Life is holy. Life is mysterious. Life is non-ideological.
Screw ’em if they can’t take a joke.
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