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It has been such a long time since American workers have pressured employers in such large numbers that some are calling this month “Striketober.” More than 10,000 John Deere United Automobile Workers (UAW) are on strike across the country after rejecting a tentative agreement that failed to adequately increase wages, provide pensions, and improve incentive programs for the employees. The film and television industry narrowly avoided being ground to halt by one of its largest union actions to date with a tenth hour deal between International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), which represents roughly 150,000 industry crew members, and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), which many union members feel does not provide nearly sufficient working conditions. The recent on-set fatality has since increased calls for stronger employee protections. Some 1,400 Kellogg workers represented by the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union (BCTGM) are currently on strike, following a five-week long action by their counterparts at Nabisco. Amazon employees in Alabama may get a second chance at unionizing under the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU). Starbucks workers are contemplating unionizing as Starbucks Workers United. Even a Dollar General Store in Connecticut is preparing for a vote to join the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW).
This fervent swell of recent union activity underscores the heightened class tensions that have taken shape throughout the COVID-19 pandemic in the US. While experts caution against simplifying this moment with cheers of increased labor power, current job openings disproportionately exceed the number of people being hired. It’s Economics 101: the demand for workers is higher than the supply so the price is going up, and fast. Ultimately, the pandemic has revealed the deep flaws and inequities built into the American capitalist system and with this stark shift in economic power, the time is ripe for radical change. The question remains, though: what will that change look like and how will it be sustained beyond Striketober?
Image source: Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis via US Bureau of Labor Statistics, September 2021
The answer lies in making visible the values, structures, and models of the community-centered economies sustaining our everyday lives, including the forceful process that has surged throughout the last 18+ months: mutual aid.
Scholars like J.K. Gibson Graham are at the forefront of a shift in economic thinking that asks us to look beyond capitalist processes of economization to those that center care over capital, relationships over transactions. Illustrated in their Diverse Economies Iceberg below, these processes involve non-monetary transactions like bartering and gifting, decentralized exchanges like open-source and DIY, and even ecologically based forms of value such as transforming waste by composting and photosynthesis.
Diverse Economies Iceberg by Community Economies Collective is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
These diverse forms of economization are well-known lifelines for societies on the margins of capitalist America. Yet, as the country’s political and healthcare systems failed under pressure from the COVID-19 pandemic, their role in building collective wellbeing was made unmistakably clear to many more.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, grassroots solidarity networks have emerged around the country to provide solutions that center people helping other people. From anti-eviction support and distribution of goods, to childcare for essential workers and assistance navigating unemployment applications, informal mutual aid networks have facilitated a range of initiatives to support local communities in distress. Organized through decentralized digital platforms like Slack, Google Drive, and Airtable, mutual aid initiatives have been instrumental in sustaining Indigenous populations, Black families, immigrant households, gig workers, the unhoused, the incarcerated, and others often overlooked by capitalist economization.
In his recent book, Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity During This Crisis (and the Next), activist scholar Dean Spade defines mutual aid as “collective coordination to meet each other’s needs, usually from an awareness that the systems we have in place are not going to meet them.” The concept of mutual aid existed long before capitalist economies and, in modern times, has often supplemented it.
But the number and visibility of such organizations has shot up since the American economy went into freefall in March 2020. In New York City alone, more than 50 mutual aid groups emerged during the initial pandemic business closures. They served areas of different sizes, from individual public housing units to entire urban neighborhoods. Where I live in Bushwick, Bed-Stuy Strong, Bushwick Ayuda Mutua, and Woodbine (in Ridgewood, Queens) are now household names.
Started in the throes of pandemic uncertainty, these mutual aid organizations have evolved over the last 18 months to meet not only their communities’ changing needs during the pandemic, but also systemic needs that existed long before. One Woodbine organizer asserted only six months into the pandemic that the group’s work has “shifted from being disaster relief . . . to something close to poverty relief.”
In fact, for mutual aid organizers, the end goal was never to provide temporary support and then move on, but rather to build lasting solidarity capacities within the communities they serve. When a group inevitably dissolves due to covid fatigue and the general effects of time, the networks of care should remain and potentially reactivate other forms.
Of equal importance, mutual aid organizers are not interested in profit. They de-center capital except when necessary—launching crowdfunding efforts for weekly grocery runs, for example—and are instead fueled by genuine altruism and a reliance on volunteers to sustain the work.
Mutual aid groups also embody a radical approach to organization design. There are clear values, models, and structures that inform it, which Spade characterizes in the following ways:
- Mutual aid is “leaderless and leaderful.” As Spade explains, strong mutual aid projects “shed the baggage of what we are told ‘leadership’ is in a racist, colonial, patriarchal society.” Instead, they consist of large groups of people who constantly self-organize, collaborate, learn new skills, and welcome new volunteers. Instead of valuing leadership models centered around “individuality, competition, and domination,” they prioritize inclusivity, autonomy, and compassion.
- Mutual aid utilizes consensus decision making. With leaderlessness comes decentralized, consensus-based decision-making. This process encourages mutual aid groups to “find out what each other’s concerns are and try to create a path forward that addresses all the concerns as well as possible.” Rooted in solidarity and inclusivity, this model shifts organizational power away from the isolated few to the united many. It reverses the capitalist norm of hierarchical, top-down decision making that disempowers those at the bottom.
- Mutual aid is driven by member empowerment. There is no culture of ownership, no hierarchy of seniority or merit. All who want to be involved and can dedicate their time and energy are welcome to. Mutual aid encourages activists to make use of the organization’s resources to implement new programs, projects, and working groups. New members are onboarded in such a way that empowers them to find their own role; they are given all the tools and information they need to engage with existing initiatives or launch their own.
- Mutual aid is grounded in transparency. To use Bed-Stuy Strong as an example, new mutual aid activists are added to the “Members Hub.” This is a detailed Notion board with information on every aspect of the organization, from active working groups that facilitate COVID-19 vaccination information sharing and air conditioning unit donations, to primary organization contacts and minutes from past visioning meetings. The hub sets new members up with everything they need to participate meaningfully, actively, and intentionally, while creating a space for learning, critiquing, and changing the group itself. Not only is it clear how to get involved, but it’s also clear how the group is structured, where funds go, what donation requests are waiting to be fulfilled, and more. Mutual aid has nothing to hide, and it empowers members with information.
- Mutual aid cultivates community trust. Current mutual aid groups did not appear out of thin air 18 months ago. They have a history, which they activate by working with established solidarity networks, churches, cultural associations, local businesses, and more to ensure their initiatives reach as many people as possible. By acknowledging existing expertise and enmeshing themselves into the webs of care and support built by established community organizations, mutual aid groups show that they are guided by trust and mutual respect.
- Mutual aid prioritizes rest. Organizer burnout can destroy a project. Thus, mutual aid volunteers recognize the added stress of working outside dominant economic structures. Establishing safety nets for vast communities of minoritized people requires fundraising, staffing, and long hours. Eighteen months into the global pandemic with no real end in sight makes exhaustion a growing problem. As Spade explains, working joyfully rather than compulsively helps to mitigate overwork and burnout, as does boundary setting, reasonable time allotment for tasks, mindfulness, and knowing when to rest. Many mutual aid groups have had to take time away from their projects to rest and re-center so they can continue to fully support their neighbors into the future.
Although this list is not exhaustive and new values will undoubtedly emerge, mutual aid thrives not because it meets capitalist America on its own terms, but because it upends capitalist norms of hierarchy, individuality, exclusivity, and competition.
By strengthening localized economies of care, mutual aid proves that broader ones are both possible and sustainable. Union and non-union workers, alike, don’t have to imagine a world where their work is given appropriate monetary value, where the welfare of the many is prioritized over that of the few, where they are valued as people beyond their capacity to labor and consume. Mutual aid proves that the inclusive, people-centric world bravely being fought for on picket lines around the country is already here—it just needs to be nurtured a bit more. The energy of Striketober will not last forever, but the networks of solidarity and care reinforced by mutual aid absolutely can.
Molly Ragan is an MS candidate in Strategic Design and Management at Parsons School of Design, The New School.