For the next month I will writing a series of posts documenting and critically analyzing the works of the Workers Defense Project; here’s an intro. This group provides a backbone to an otherwise vulnerable, and thus expendable workforce in Austin, as well as the state of Texas at large. The WDP adopts a hybrid approach, engaging in both advocacy and the provision of services.
Some of the past and current activities the WDP has engaged in include providing legal services (either providing counsel in individual compensation cases or mobilizing and organizing for class action lawsuits), vocational training (from teaching basic job skills to providing ESL courses for free to new immigrants), labor movement and union organization, mobilization and advocacy (helping to create a network of interested parties to raise issue awareness surrounding work conditions, business malpractice, inequality in compensation and/or benefits, discrimination, and corporate irresponsibility), lobbying efforts at the local, county and state level, information and knowledge production documenting the conditions of the status quo, and both traditional and novel acts of protest (from picketing to rallies and even flash mobs).
The WDP offers a promising object of research for communication studies scholars for reasons three-fold:
1) Timing: Out of the historical and material conditions of our present moment have emerged new publics specifically targeting the totality of the economic system. While labor organizations have always existed the decreased participation rate among workers has paralleled but also exceeded the rate of decline in manufacturing and production based jobs. Labor ought to be of utmost interest for communication studies scholars because discourses are derived from and in our media saturated environment often become part of the material conditions of society itself.
2) Communicative Labor: Investigating the intersections of labor and communication opens up the constitutive grounds upon which both communication and labor are possible. As the determining principle of society, the transformations in material conditions of labor demonstrate the importance of placing specific communicative acts, structures and situations firmly within their ideological and historical contexts. The flesh and blood relations of bondage, alienation and exploitation determine the coordinates and limits of who can speak, the conditions of possibility for varying means of communication and the currency of different discourses in relation to larger structures of knowledge production. All too often one’s material location is conflated with the worth or value of their discourse when seen under the guise of economic rationality; but the question of whose voice matters is being reopened in response to three simultaneous trends; the rise of flexible labor, the increasing resonance and intensity of the productive yet disenfranchised multitude and the proliferation of increasingly interconnected forms of new media. Understanding communication as an immaterial yet concrete form of labor has the potential to inaugurate new paradigms for thinking about the stuff of what social movements are doing; and how social movements might appeal to potential participants beyond means of guilt, despair or the politics of pity.
3) Contradiction: The Worker’s Defense Project is a local organization but upon reflection quickly realized its tactics, goals and ends could not be limited to its immediate environment. While Austin does have a sizeable labor force being a metropolitan area, its economic conditions are relatively well off in comparison to many parts of the nation and drastically so in relation to the global south. Yet at the same time Austin’s cultural dispositions make it relatively open, encouraging even, to movements surrounding economic justice. Yet at the same time that Austin is a politically motivated city and at the heart of Texas politics the legislators under the dome are for most part unreceptive to its demands. Yet even if actions locally or on a state level were taken, complicity in the totality of the system is all but impossible to escape. Even if meaningful reforms were enacted it would simply represent a paving over of a still fundamentally unfair system; yet this should not lead to despair but a continual sense of urgency for action at all potential points of power traversal.