On Punching Allies

A Lutheran church in Oak Park, Illinois, had a fire, and was investing $3 million in rebuilding the church building. The church interviewed and hired only union labor for the project. After the project was scheduled with a start date of July 1, they discovered that they needed to remove asbestos before the project began. They searched for a union contractor to do the $20,000 asbestos removal project, but ultimately selected a non-union contractor in order to stay on schedule with the rest of the renovation project. This caught the attention of the Laborers’ Local in Oak Park, who put an inflatable rat in front of the church to highlight the fact that the asbestos abatement company is non-union. And, of course, the rat got news coverage.

Let me start with this. I support unions. Unions are an important tool for the empowerment of workers. And I also know that asbestos removal is dangerous work and that companies sometimes contract dangerous work out to non-union contractors in order to save money. The church should have found a way to use union labor for the work. They failed to do that. That’s unfortunate.

But I still have problems with putting the rat in front of the church who hired the company. I could write a massive post about why this is an ineffective use of the rat, but I want to focus on one problem: this is ally punching.

There is a certain segment of every social movement—including the political left—that is concerned with purity. This segment doesn’t care if someone tries to do mostly the right thing. It doesn’t even care if someone actually does mostly the right thing. It will attack anyone who takes a single step out of line. We see that in this case: a union is targeting a church that was very deliberate about using union labor for, literally, 99% of its project, because it failed to do that for one percent of its project. We also see it among Bernie Bros and others. And its extremely dangerous.

Social movements are not pure. There are people who will not try their best. There are people who will try and fail. There are people who will make complicated decisions that make perfect sense from the inside and that are less-than-ideal from the outside. But as long as those people are allies, they are, on balance, helping us move forward. And as long as those people are allies, we can teach them and correct them and disagree with them and understand them. (And, of course, this applies to organizations, too.)

And here’s the thing: each and every one of us is someone’s impure ally. Each and every one of us needs to be taught and corrected and disagreed with and understood. And we should extend the grace that we expect to others, as well.

But what ally punching communicates is that it doesn’t matter how good of a job you do of being an ally unless you are perfect. This church sought out and hired union labor for, again, literally, 99% of its project. But to the union that put this rat in front of the church, that doesn’t matter. In fact, I doubt the union even knew that. I imagine they just find any project being done by this particular company and put up the rat. To this local union, there was no difference between hiring a non-union company because it’s more convenient and hiring one because they were the only one available. To this local union, there was no difference between hiring a non-union contractor for one percent of a project. and hiring non-union contractors for 100% of a project.

I know churches. I know the financial realities of churches. And I suspect that, at some point, there will be a conversation where someone asks, “Why are we paying the cost of union labor for 99% of this project, when the union is going to treat us like someone who doesn’t hire union labor at all? Why not save the money if we’re going to get punched either way?”

I hope that the church will continue to seek out and use union labor because it’s the right thing to do. But I also know that the union didn’t do itself any favors here. And that’s true for ally punching generally. If I hit someone every time they make a mistake, no matter how slight, eventually they will stop trying altogether. Ally punching just ends up alienating allies. And that is something we cannot afford.

That doesn’t mean we can criticize allies. That doesn’t mean that we can’t correct allies. That doesn’t mean that we can’t hold allies accountable. It just means that we need to understand the difference between our allies (who, sometimes, make mistakes) and our enemies.

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