Lots of attention being paid to a long article by Ryan Grim at The Intercept about how internal conflicts are damaging left-wing organizations. Consider what happened when Heather Boonstra, a VP at the Guttmacher Institute, convened a meeting to discuss what they could do as part of the racial reckoning that followed the murder of George Floyd. She thought the meeting would be about
What could Guttmacher, with an annual budget of nearly $30 million, do now to make the world a better place?
For her staff, that question had to be answered at home first: What could they do to make Guttmacher a better place? Too often, they believed, managers exploited the moral commitment staff felt toward their mission, allowing workplace abuses to go unchecked.
In response, Boonstra said this:
“I’m here to talk about George Floyd and the other African American men who have been beaten up by society,” she told her staff, not “workplace problems.” Boonstra told them she was “disappointed,” that they were being “self-centered.” The staff was appalled enough by the exchange to relay it to Prism.
That was two years ago, but according to Grim the struggle continues and the organization is crippled. People opposing the leadership of Guttmacher, NARAL, and Pro-Choice America have formed a colllective called ReproJobs that regularly posts messages like
If your reproductive justice organization isn’t Black and brown it’s white supremacy in heels co-opting a WOC movement.
Grim goes much further and says that not just abortion-rights groups but the whole left-wing movement has “ceased to function” because of
knock-down, drag-out fights between competing factions of their organizations, most often breaking down along staff-versus-management lines. . . . The Sierra Club, Demos, the American Civil Liberties Union, Color of Change, the Movement for Black Lives, Human Rights Campaign, Time’s Up, the Sunrise Movement, and many other organizations have seen wrenching and debilitating turmoil in the past couple of years.
According to Politico, this includes the National Audubon Society:
Following a botched diversity meeting, a highly critical employee survey and the resignations of two top diversity and inclusion officials, the 600,000-member National Audubon Society is confronting allegations that it maintains a culture of retaliation, fear and antagonism toward women and people of color, according to interviews with 13 current and former staff members.
As I said, Grim's article is long, and if you want more examples of these kind of problems ripping apart left-wing organizations, he has plenty.
Grim's article is impressive as far as it goes, but I find this issue interesting at a much deeper level. If an organization says it is committed to making the world a better place, shouldn't that maybe start with how it treats its own employees? Why are so many organizations devoted to democracy run in a hierarchal, top-down fashion, never even so much as consulting their rank-and-file employees about what should be done? Why do organizations devoted to reducing inequality pay their employees so badly?
I remember reading a bunch of bitter complaints about Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign, which was a strictly authoritarian, top-down operation whose leaders regularly told its staffers to shut up and do what they were told, and paid them even worse than most campaigns. Isn't there something wrong with that? If Sanders really believed in workplace democracy and a living wage for everyone, why did he flagrantly violate those principles? If the response is that it's just too hard to run a campaign as a democracy, what does that say about democratic politics in general? Isn't running the country a lot harder than running a campaign, or an organization like the Guttmacher Institute? And are you sure the finances of a major presidential campaign are worse than those of the average convenience store? Liberals like to complain about companies like Walmart that want their employees to care about the company and be passionate about their jobs no matter how low their pay; how is that different from the Sanders campaign asking its staffers to sacrifice for a political future that had about the same chance of becoming reality as the average Walmart employee has of becoming a company executive?
My readers know I am perfectly willing to believe that many young people working for left-wing groups are entitled brats, or the sort of miserable whiners who think it's unfair to ask them to work in the middle of a pandemic. I am sure that the problems in some of these places can be traced back to such people. But I doubt all of them can. I am quite certain that many non-profit organizations are led by narcissistic bullies who abuse the staff but keep their positions because they are good at raising money from rich people. I believe that this is a particular problem with charismatic leaders who found their own non-profits and share the narcissism of most charismatic leaders. And it is certainly true that non-profits pay their staff worse than for-profit companies do, and have the same kind of salary pyramid as corporations; the President of the ASPCA makes $750,000 a year to lead an organization that relies on volunteers and passionate, badly paid staffers to do all the work.
I also want to note that I think the focus on racism, from both the protesters and their critics, is a red herring. Listen long enough to young leftists and you learn that they say "racism" when they mean "everything wrong with the world," the same way conservatives used to use "communism." I was once told, by a middle aged leftist, that "capitalism is racism" and, about a minute later, "inequality is racism." I think that is a dumb way to talk about problems that have little to do with skin color, but I think it is also foolish to dismiss young white liberals who complain about racism as whiny, miserable, entitled brats. It is simply the way they articulate much broader concerns about the world we live in.
This kind of pressure had led museums, the type of non-profit I know the most about, to make major efforts to improve the pay and working conditions of their staff. On the one hand it is true that the more they pay their staff, the fewer resources they have for promoting art or history. But for many young people, nothing is worth doing if it can only be done by exploiting others, and they have persuaded many museums to take this seriously. I think that is a good thing.
On the workplace democracy front, I am unsure. It sounds like a noble ideal, but I have no experience of an organization that has actually made it work. Plenty of organizations founded on anarchist principles eventually set them aside and appointed boards and chief executives. Political democracy only works when it is strictly limited by constitutions and bureaucracies. So the extent that any large entity could function while putting the views and concerns of its employees at the center of its concerns is unclear to me. But we should certainly fight bullying by abusive bosses.
So I do not think, as Grim implies, that the problems he describes flow solely from the foibles of young, left-wing Americans. I think they represent a major conflict over how we should think about justice, and what it means for an organization to work toward improving the world.