How Unionizing Sparked a New Sense of Possibility in Me

When my coworkers and I decided to organize a union at our workplace, we had a whole list of tangible goals we hoped to achieve. But organizing also gave me something more ineffable that I’d been desperately missing: a sense of hope.

Staff at PEN America celebrating voluntary recognition of their union, PEN America United. (@united_PEN / Twitter)

There’s been a whole lot of bad news over the last two years. We’ve now lost over 6.5 million people worldwide to COVID-19, are desperately running out of time to curb the most critical effects of climate change, and 2022 is on track to become America’s second-highest year for mass shootings ever. These and countless other global crises — so many of which have unfolded in silence in recent years — are sound reasons to not feel particularly optimistic, for aspiring to aspire no more, for nihilism, for allowing emotional exhaustion to siphon away the meager reserves of energy we tap into daily.

Which is why I was surprised to find myself feeling recharged on a Zoom call with colleagues a few months back, talking about work, of all things — at 10 p.m. on a Wednesday. They felt it, too.

We had just clinched formal recognition of PEN America United (PAU), the independent union for staff at PEN America, a nonprofit focused on defending and celebrating free expression. Though unionizing an organization driven by First Amendment principles comes with a ton of built-in leverage, attaining voluntary recognition did not come as quickly as it should’ve, especially given PEN’s history of protecting the right to dissent.

Still, on that Zoom call, after nearly a year of organizing and eligibility negotiations with management, we were finally approaching the bargaining table, and unit members were eager to talk about what they each felt ought to be included in our future contract: a pay floor; just-cause termination; and explicitly outlined, full reproductive care coverage in light of the overturning of Roe v. Wade.

I heard my colleagues transcend previously conceived boundaries of the possible in their envisioning of a better workplace. How far we were from the reticent gathering of employees one year before, comprised of so many who believed conceptually in unions, but expected retaliation from management more than a favorable outcome.

Even as a member of the union’s organizing committee, I, too, often shared this prematurely disillusioned outlook. But witnessing my union siblings shed their reluctance in favor of optimism in the collective, reminded me that daring to hope is indeed sometimes the best way to feel hopeful.

As Mariame Kaba puts it, “Hope is a discipline.” It takes gentle acts of care and intention to achieve the right kind of growth that catalyzes apathy into optimism. Cultivating and maintaining this hope, in others and especially in myself, is perhaps the most consequential lesson I learned in organizing my workplace, where hope might refer to genuinely believing that better possibilities exist. I don’t mean that in a cheery, hyperbolic way, but one where there isn’t as much discomfort in asking for more than is given — whether that applies to asking for a raise, expressing needs in relationships, or simply believing in better alternatives to the status quo.

Summoning the courage to ask for more can be a difficult lesson for a lot of people, especially children of immigrants like myself, who are taught to be satisfied with what is, as if what is has been provided and thus warrants quiet, submissive thanks. Organizing a union forces you to make that ask, and do so by critically assessing your workplace and thinking deeply about what’s working, as well as what changes might serve you and your colleagues.

Not only was it empowering to ask myself these questions, but it quickly established a communal aspect to my work life, where I understood a mutual accountability between myself and my colleagues that extended beyond the realm of work. We would rally for a contract that would factor in each of our priorities, providing every employee with the tools they need to thrive.

It’s difficult to think of another instance in my adult life where I’ve been called to build a vision and set goals without watering them down first. I’d been so used to paring down what I ask for before someone wanted to even take it away. In organizing, however, they tell you to start big — let management be the ones to take things away. Don’t ever be the one to censor your own aspirations.

A New Outlook

Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to be the loudest person to be a good organizer. I certainly didn’t fall into that category and neither did the other members of the numerous iterations of our mighty organizing committees. Instead, I realized that the best leaders are good listeners first, who can call in the folks who have been sidelined and see the nuances that come between seemingly disparate truths: you can like your supervisor and still be pro-union. One person may want a more flexible work-from-home policy, the other, a more comfortable in-office setup. You can be soft spoken, but a wiz at graphic design, or plan powerful actions, or assemble the most comprehensive bargaining survey, or draft devastating tweets.

Carrying out a collective vision requires support from all types of individuals, who can come together and creatively problem-solve in novel ways and say, “I care about you, and things can be better. Here’s what I can contribute.” 

PEN America United won voluntary recognition from PEN America management this June, but the process from our first announcement to formal recognition took nearly half a year. Considering more combative drives, that isn’t much time at all. But in those months, we still lost staff members and gained others, all while our organization expanded and shifted in structure. We negotiated with management over the hazy National Labor Relations Board definitions of “managerial” versus “supervisory” employees, and where we would have to draw the line of exclusion for our unit. We did that until the words lost their meanings.

But especially for new employees, we sometimes had to give people the time they needed to familiarize themselves with the ins and outs of our workplace, alongside those of unions generally and their benefits. I learned the importance of striking a balance between welcoming new hires to get involved with the union early on, but also to be wary of any heavy-handedness that might push people too far beyond their comfort zones too quickly. Shifting the culture of any organization takes time and comes with periods of ebbs and flows (and even straight-up losses) before long-term formative gains take place.

I left PEN America for graduate school recently, exchanging my home city of New York for a small town in the Netherlands, where I’m pursuing a master’s degree centered on sustainable food systems. Every so often I get updates from current PAU members — about bargaining surveys going out, photos from the latest happy hour. The union is currently negotiating its first contract and gets to interact directly with management on a regular basis. They are sitting at the table that current and former staff members designed and built with care.

Observing PAU’s development as someone who no longer works at PEN America is bittersweet. Sometimes it does feel like unfinished work. But no individual organizer or committee needs to command the helm for the entirety of a movement in order to impact it meaningfully. After all, organizing is all about inspiring more organizing, and envisioning futures that are further aligned with a collective’s well-being than the last. One day, PEN staff members will hopefully not know the version of PEN America without a pay floor, substantive job security, or enforced overtime pay policies. They’ll have the current cohort of PAU to thank for that.

While it might be an overstatement to say that organizing PAU has given me a new outlook on the world, I’ve come away from the experience steadfast in my conviction that the past does not need to be a blueprint for the future. Practicing hope — and refuting notions of unchangeability in our workplaces and communities — is a great way to quash that assumption, connect with others, and cultivate some semblance of meaning in a bleak world. We can’t let the way things have been done in the past serve as an enclosure around what we dare to imagine before us.