Including difference to strengthen a movements

Heard a great story today.

I’m at a conference of union activists who are working to build their activist muscles up and do work in communities.  One of the presenters here is Jason Sidener, who I’ve enjoyed spending a couple of hours with.  Jason is the Member Mobilization Coordinator for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).  he is abased in Madison, Wisconsin and played a key organizing role in the upheavals there in 2011 when public sector unions successfully stood up to Governer Scott Walker’s anti union agenda.

Jason told a story today about some of the work he did long before that high profile action.  He was brought up on a farm, a conservative rural young man who was raised Republican and came from a Republican family.  He changed as he grew up, and when he started working for the union he discovered that in the AFSCME about a third of the members are Republicans.  They like their guns, they are social conservatives and they don’t trust outsiders.

Jason noticed that at union meetings and conventions, these conservatives, who nevertheless were supporters of fair wages and benefits for public sector workers, often found themselves silenced, ostracized and marginalized.  The temptation is to argue with conservative union members and try to convince them that their politics are wrong.  But Jason took another approach.  He saw that the split between conservative and progressive members was dangerous to the unity of the union, so he set about creating a Conservative caucus within the union, where Conservative members could have a safe place to discuss their ideas.

Although counter intuitive, this initiative paid dividends when Republican Scott Walker tried to pass his radical legislation last year.  Many of the members of the Conservative caucus started coming to Jason saying “take me off that list.”  They were realizing that the guy they had elected was no friend of theirs after all.  They appreciated the Conservative caucus but saw that in this case, the bigger movement was more important.

I was struck by Jason’s unfettered approach to this work.  His confidence in the right thing to do, his commitment to inclusion and his presence of mind to care for the bigger movement is inspiring.