There are many people in my life who have encouraged and supported my growth as an organizer and leader. I am deeply grateful for them and the journey they have accompanied me on as I have worked at the intersections of labor unions, worker centers, and many other parts of the social justice movement. For over two decades I have been focused on this question of how we build power for working people, and I have had the good fortune of learning from and with a number of talented and brilliant people, some of whom I acknowledge here.
I thank people like Larry Cohen, the late Paul Booth, Lara Granich, Ashim Roy, Anannya Bhattacharjee, Carl Rosen, Dr. Rev. Calvin Morris, Stewart Acuff, Nik Theodore, Russ Davis, Margaret Butler, Mary Beth Maxwell, Fred Azcarate, Stephen Lerner, John Cavanagh, and Bill Fletcher Jr., who have all helped me understand the critical importance of bargaining rights and movement building in the United States and in transnational contexts. Their guidance, mentorship, sharp analysis, and the countless worker organizing and solidarity campaigns that they led have shaped my thinking over the years. They have each challenged me to stretch and inspired me to deepen my commitment to advancing workers’ rights within a broader social justice framework, centering racial and gender equity.
I have been lucky to explore these questions of worker power with a brilliant cadre of peers leading important worker organizing campaigns outside of the traditional union approaches. These are organizations and leaders who have largely represented workers of color, immigrants, and women. They include member leaders and organizers of key partners to Jobs With Justice, like NDWA, ROC United, NDLON, NOWCRJ, National Guestworkers Alliance (NGA), United for Respect, Global Labor Justice, and the United Workers Congress. I want to especially thank Ai-jen Poo, Saket Soni, Saru Jayaraman, Fekkak Mamdouh, Sekou Siby, Pablo Alvarado, Jennifer Rosenbaum, Andrea Dehlendorf, Dan Schlademan, and Eddie Iny. They each invited me to think outside of the box with them and to take part in smart and innovative campaigns from which I have learned so much. I am deeply grateful for their friendship and partnership over the years.
A very special thanks to two brilliant leaders in this field, Lara Granich and Ai-jen Poo, without whom much of the work I got to do at JWJ and Caring Across Generations as well as within broader movement spaces would not have been possible. You have both been incredible sources of inspiration and support. Thank you for modeling what it means to be bold and for being true sisters to me in this work.
Throughout my time at JWJ I worked with some of the most committed organizers, staff members, and leaders. My JWJ family is too large to name here, but I am grateful for the many local JWJ staff and leaders who have worked tirelessly to build a movement for workers’ rights. And I want to especially thank the many staff members I had the privilege of working with from 1998 to 2019, spanning my time from Chicago JWJ, National JWJ, a merger with American Rights at Work, and my time at Caring Across Generations. You all know who you are. I especially want to acknowledge the late Treston Davis-Faulkner, Scarlet Jimenez, Akosua Meyers, Amy Smoucha, Liz Cattaneo, and Jessica Felix-Romero, who all encouraged, supported, and partnered with me on so much of the work that informed this book. I want to especially lift up the work of Erin Johannsson, Mackenzie Baris, Nafisah Ula, and Adam Shah, who sharpened many of the ideas and questions embedded within this book. And thank-you to Mark Leach, who has been an incredible coach and guide for me and for JWJ and who helped us create the space to envision and make meaning of our collective work with an eye toward tomorrow.
This book would not have been possible without a number of people who supported Smiley and me on this writing journey. Frances Benson, previously at Cornell University Press, whose enthusiasm inspired us to work on this manuscript. Karl Weber, who has been a phenomenal editor and thought partner. Janice Fine, who has provided us with critical guidance every step of the way and shared important feedback on our manuscript. Sheri Davis, Lane Windham, Marilyn Sneiderman, and our many friends at WILL Empower who provided a fellowship to Smiley and a platform for the both of us to talk through ideas. Joseph McCartin, who has helped me appreciate and draw from labor history, partnered with me on many writing opportunities, and provided early feedback on this book. Our friends at the North Star Network who explored early ideas and frames with us.
Thank-you to Kimberly, Allyson, Heather, Lidia, Sanchioni, Betty, Cynthia, Deloris, Rubynell, and Jeff, who all very graciously shared their personal stories and reflections with us. I learned so much through the interviews and from the actual campaigns you all talked about. I am so thrilled that we got to work with Gwenn Seemel, who created the incredible portraits that provide such rich texture to the voices of the worker leaders woven throughout this book. And thank you to the team at Cornell University Press for all of your work!
A critical member of our team is Rachel Coleman, who served as our project manager. She provided countless hours of coordination, thought partnership, feedback, and problem-solving that have made this book real. And most important, she helped Smiley and me carve out the time and space we needed to plan, write, and edit. There are not enough ways to express our gratitude to you and all that you do.
And of course, my incredible coauthor, Erica Smiley. I have had the great privilege of knowing Smiley for over twenty years and through various roles within the movement. We have a rich history of debating, developing, and collaborating on work together. Smiley has been a brilliant partner in bringing these concepts into sharp focus and leading work that has helped us build our analysis on this idea of expanded bargaining. I feel enormously grateful to have worked and learned with and from such a purposeful leader and coconspirator. She has brought not only deep intellect and smart organizing to this work but also a whole lot of joy, laughter, and creativity to my life.
I am thankful every day for having the support, love, and encouragement of my family. I am thankful to my parents, Pratap and Binita, who have always modeled what it means to live your values and provided deep love that has carried me through my life. I thank my siblings, Pronita and Prasi Gupta, Deepak Pateria, and Brenda Munoz, who not only have provided immense support and encouragement but also have taught me a great deal from their own work in the movement. And my niece and nephew, Sadhana and Julian, for inspiring me to want to make a better future possible.
My daughter has also been a real source of inspiration and grounding. Suraiya, thank you for all of your hugs, kisses, laughter, and understanding as I embarked on writing this book.
And finally, my most important acknowledgment of all: Eddie Acosta, there are no words to adequately express my deep love and appreciation for you. Your years of work in the labor movement have taught me so much. And the way you live into your values has always inspired me to be a better person. Thank you for being my brilliant grounding force, my partner in every sense of the word, and for always cheering me on. I could not do what I do without you.
When I think of those who made this possible, who have made me possible, I am overwhelmed with gratitude. From my given and chosen family to the movement mentors and colleagues who carried me, cheered me on, and agitated me to shine in ways that only I could, I am grateful.
First, I think of the patience of my given family, particularly my parents, Sharon and Bill Smiley, who managed to embrace me with unconditional love and compassion when faced with the unexpected and often radical departure from traditions and norms that I imposed on them. Thank you for putting up with all my interests—the fleeting and the sustained. Thank you for defending me when I challenged authority based on values and principle. And thank you for always ensuring I remained connected to our shared history—as Copelands, Harts, and Smileys as well as the shared heritage of southern Black people who always held the light of freedom from farm to factory, no matter how difficult the situation. When I feel like the work is too hard, I remember what they endured and I am regrounded. I am their victory, and this book is their receipt.
As I left home and began to make my own way in the world, I encountered people who I would only later realize were constantly holding me up and guaranteeing I did not fall through the wide cracks that society lays down for southern Black gender nonconforming women who insist on equality: the Black assistant DA who ensured my stupid decisions as a young person did not follow me throughout my life; the vice chancellor who inserted himself between me and the powers-that-be at school who felt I was shaking things up too much; the veteran movement leader who shielded me from unprincipled attacks. All of these individuals and their individual acts are the reason I am here.
Thank you to Bill Fletcher Jr., who modeled what it means to be a dogged, methodical organizer and a public intellectual constantly testing theory with practice—guiding me gently since I was eighteen years old. To Janice Fine, who also saw the potential in my ability to play a similar role and agitated me to not just be good but to be really sharp both in the arguments made in this book as well as the campaign strategies I promote in Jobs With Justice. And thanks to Frances Benson, previously at Cornell University Press, whose enthusiasm gave us the energy to lean into the manuscript. Additional thanks go to Saket Soni and Stephen Lerner, who developed some of the ideas that led to the concepts in this book, let alone helped me with strategy and campaign development. There are a series of individuals who shaped my early drive to organize, including Jon Liss, Jackie Kendall, Marvin Randolph, Eddie Acosta, Jarvis Tyner, Scott Marshall, Bryan Proffitt, the Reverend J. Herbert Nelson, and many others whose patience and kindness did not go unnoticed.
There are also a set of special union leaders who have modeled for me what it means to think outside the box and win. These include Mary Kay Henry, Nicole Berner, and John Taylor of SEIU; Elissa McBride of AFSCME; Ken Rigmaiden and Jimmie Williams Jr. of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades; Todd Crosby and Esther Lopez of UFCW; DeMaurice Smith of NFLPA; and many others. I am also grateful to the National Labor Leadership Institute (NLLI) for holding space for these complex discussions.
A heartfelt thanks goes out to the WILL Empower Program housed across the Georgetown University Kalmanovitz Institute for Labor and the Working Poor and Rutgers University’s Center for Innovation in Worker Organization. As the first fellow of the WILL Empower Program, I received space to write, travel to engage workers, and access to important thought leaders within this field of study for feedback and guidance.
I also want to acknowledge the artist, Gwenn Seemel. She was first my friend, and she had the patience to go on an incredible journey with me to meet the workers whose stories fill these pages and paint their portraits—quite literally riding shotgun as I drove from New Jersey to West Virginia and Washington DC, from Jackson, MS to St Louis, MO, from Atlanta, GA to Tarheel, NC. Gwenn painted each of us with the treatment historically preserved solely for the wealthy and powerful. It has been a privilege to work with you. And I have much gratitude for your patience with me in this process.
I want to make a special acknowledgment of the late Treston Davis-Faulkner, former field director of Jobs With Justice. Treston saw a spark in me when I was only nineteen and always followed up despite my lack of early reciprocity. Treston ultimately recruited me to Jobs With Justice and created containers for me to grow and expand in ways that benefited those we were in solidarity with as well as my own leadership. And to his son, Na’im, and his partner Sheri Davis in their own rights who have become a part of my chosen family and keep me in the light.
I am grateful for the network leaders and staff at Jobs With Justice who stuck with me and Sarita in sharpening the ideas in this book and essentially developing the case studies by being in constant relationship with workers in motion. I want to give particular thanks to Mackenzie Baris, Erin Johannsson, Nafisah Ula, and Adam Shah, who spent a lot of time discussing strategy and tactics, applications, and open questions. And in the case of Adam Shah, I have much gratitude for some of the early research done on case studies that we eventually elaborated on. There are too many others on staff to mention here, but I will give a special thanks to the team that made up our organizing staff while I wrote this book. They put up with me transitioning to the executive director role, taking parental leave when my daughter arrived on a week’s notice, and taking large chunks of time that could have been spent supporting them to write this book. So, thank you to Ada Fuentes, Natalie Patrick-Knox, Mina Itabashi, Dominique Countee, and Sam Nelson.
There are often people in the background making things happen who are not praised when all is said and done. I think about the many women who handwrote signs and prepped speakers for the March on Washington only to have Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the other men get all the attention. While Sarita and my names are on the cover, this book belongs just as much to Rachel Coleman, who project managed the process, having no previous experience doing it. She kept us on deadline and facilitated tasks between the artists, publisher, editor, and everyone in between. We could not have done this without you, Rachel. And to our editor, Karl Weber, you are a miracle worker.
Sarita Gupta and I have been orbiting around each other in various movement positions for well over twenty years. I love the ease with which we agitate each other and align around common strategies. And I deeply appreciate your willingness to dive into the deep end with me on this project. No, it is not the tell-all memoir that we joked about. It is much more than that, the theoretical basis for what we have struggled to build and define at Jobs With Justice and elsewhere. You are an amazing coconspirator, and I am so grateful to have proof of our collaboration documented in the pages of this book.
Last but far from least, I must acknowledge my partner of many years, Amanda Devecka-Rinear. It has not always been an easy ride. There was a period where, in short succession, you were taking care of me postsurgery only to be alerted that our newborn would arrive a week later. And then we found out we had to move out of our house so it could be lifted to adapt to increased flooding and climate change. Within all that I had the audacity to transition into the executive director role at Jobs With Justice, travel for extended periods and leave you to care for an infant alone, and take hours of time away even when at home to focus on writing this book. And yet, here we are. I will not say our love has not been tough at times. But it has been a deep love, nevertheless. And it has sustained me during some of the toughest periods of our lives, which we can now say include a global pandemic. I love you. I love our life together, watching our daughter grow into her own unique force. And I am grateful for your willingness to stick it out with me and my many projects.