Recently I received a call from Seth, someone I have been advising on how to organize a union for his workplace. Seth has been diligently slogging away for months, reaching out to his co-workers and organizing them to improve their working conditions. Over the course of the past few months he and his co-workers have had some small victories-they forced management to replace unsafe equipment after someone was injured, to staff shifts appropriately and to give them an unpaid holiday for Christmas. However, when I received a call from Seth he was depressed. His efforts to bring his co-workers together were not going well. The company had brought in a new manager to break the union by bribing the workers. The tactic seemed to be working and previously staunch supporters were telling Seth that they weren't interested in the union anymore.
We spent a few moments talking about Seth’s feeling of hopelessness. I shared with him how hard and depressing I found my own organizing at times. I also told him that in organizing it is always difficult to know what people are thinking or what they will do next. The most important thing, I suggested, was to be persistent. When workers try to form a union employers almost always try to break their spirits. If you don’t let them break your spirit you’ll probably win in the end, I said. And then, I offered him a story from the Taoist tradition to illustrate my point about not knowing what will happen next.
I said: “Long ago in China there was a peasant whose horse had run away. His neighbor commiserated with him. He replied “Who can know if it’s good or bad?’ The very next day the horse returned bringing with him a herd of wild horses. The peasant was suddenly very rich. When his neighbor commented on his good fortune he replied “Who can know if it’s good or bad?’ The next day the peasant’s son tried mounting one of the wild horses. He fell off and broke both his legs. Again the neighbor offered the peasant his sympathy and again the peasant replied “˜Who can know if it’s good or bad?’ The very next day the army came to the village to draft soldiers into service for a far away war. The peasant’s son was exempted from military service because of his injuries. So you see you can’t always know in the midst of things what is helpful and what isn’t.”
Seth told me that he found the story helpful and that it improved his spirits. A few days later he called me to tell me that he’d gotten five of his co-workers to join the union. A few of his co-workers had been talking things over without Seth and realized that all of the bribes--the better shifts and safer working conditions--management was giving them were because of the union, not despite it. He felt that things were going well and thanked me for the story I had shared with him.
Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (September 2007)