Unity in Union Diversity: John Flowers’ Ideas on Effecting Change

By James Anderson

Johnathan Flowers ran for president of Graduate Assistants United in 2014 and lost. He ran again in 2015 and won.

The union needs real diversity, Flowers said. As president of GAU, he said he has a responsibility to find out why the union is not protecting the needs of some graduate assistants who fall under its auspices, and to figure out how it can better fulfill that mission.

After losing his bid for GAU presidency in 2014, Flowers said he realized “value of an effective campaign,” which meant talking to more people, listening a lot, asking individuals what they wanted out of the union and dialoguing to discover how best to integrate their desires into his campaign and presidency.

“It’s necessary to have a core set of values and a plan to accomplish those core set of values,” he said. “It’s always necessary to go out and talk to the people that you’re supposed to be representing and find out ways you can align your vision of the union with their vision of the union.”

Unionism in the Family

Flowers, 30, grew up in Oak Park, Ill., a suburb of Chicago. He said his hometown celebrated diversity, but often in a “problematic” way.

“It tends toward the compositional – ‘look at all the people we have,’ versus the doing of diversity,” he said.

He said authentic diversity initiatives too often meet resistance in Oak Park.

“They’ll be opposed by some pretty conservative viewpoints that are cloaked in liberalism,” Flowers said.

Growing up in Oak Park, Flowers said he also received firsthand knowledge of the role organized labor can play in promoting diversity and building community because both his parents were union members.

“They didn’t just do things with regards to contract bargaining,” he said. “They went out and dealt with the concrete social issues they were facing there. … It was about ensuring that the people who were being protected by the contract felt they were part of a community and felt the union itself was part of the community. So that’s one of the things I’ve carried with me.”

His mother, Sandra Flowers, taught 4th, 5th and 6th grade in Oak Park District 97 and became an activist with the Illinois Education Association local after she started doing curriculum design and pointed out flaws in objectives that could be improved without increasing teacher workload.

“She was just a really active rank and file member. She was present for all the marches,” he said, and “most of the membership meetings.”

Flowers said when his mother, who retired last year, found out he had become active in the graduate assistant’s union, she got excited and started asking him questions. He said she told him all those times she had him on her lap in union meetings must have left an imprint.

While working and union organizing, his mother garnered a reputation for “tenacity and strong will,” and for her principled and occasional “opposition to administration,” he said, “which is, I think, something I’ve inherited from her.”

Flowers’ father was also a member of a union. Working in telephony, which at the time was a highly skilled position, his father told him the union helped secure employment and protect against institutionalized racism.

“Without the union it would’ve been a lot harder because the union actively protected his right to a fair wage, to do the job he’d been trained to and to do the job that he’d been hired for,” Flowers said.

Conversations with his father about how unions have historically helped maintain and support economic rights for African Americans prompted him to consider intersections between racial and economic justice in the past and for the present, he said.

Institutionalized Racism vs. Unity in Diversity

The university is an institution where injustice persists and needs to be addressed, he said.

Prior to being elected president of GAU, Flowers wrote an editorial for the student paper in which he challenged the conception of diversity articulated in another article by Nathan Stephens, director of the Center for Inclusive Excellence.

Flowers contested Stephens’ definition of diversity as “compositional,” because a reduction to numbers, Flowers wrote, “creates an idea of diversity, or being diverse, as only concerned with how many ‘diverse,’ individuals are present in the organization,” enabling “institutions to avoid looking at the structures that maintain racism because the presence of diverse bodies ‘proves’ a lack of racism.”

With a “compositional” conception of diversity, universities can defeat arguments about a lack of diversity simply by presenting numbers, which elides the need “to challenge the practices that create the very need to demonstrate diversity in the first place,” Flowers commented in his guest column.

In his February 25 “System Connection” communication, Randy Dunn, president of Southern Illinois University, quoted from Flowers’ column and acknowledged “diversity is not a numbers game.” Improving diversity implies creating a “new place,” cultivating a “new community,” and accepting “commitment beyond the borders of our campuses,” Dunn wrote.

Since the publication of those pieces, Flowers said he has met with both Dunn and Stephens. An ad hoc committee in the Graduate and Professional Student Council to address diversity and inclusivity policy formed as a result of the exchanges, and Flowers said he plans to participate in an open forum on May 6 about those policies and practices with Dunn and Father Brown, a professor of Africana Studies at SIUC and faculty advisor for the Black Affairs Council.

Flowers said a professor at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville also thanked him for writing the editorial and told him via email he would be using it in one of his courses in subsequent semesters.

Although Flowers questioned the “compositional” notion of diversity, he does not deny the compositional nature of organizations.

“Unions are compositional,” he said. “They reflect the interests and ideologies of their member body.”

Union struggles advance the interests and desires of those who comprise it, Flowers offered.

“The union is the end result of all of its members coming together to basically demand their livelihood – a satisfactory livelihood,” he said. “What is taken to be a satisfactory livelihood always emerges out of the composition of the member body. So if your member body is predominantly from one demographic it will represent the ideal of what that demographic’s livelihood is.”

This is why, Flowers said, diverse membership is important for any union.

“If its member body is of a particular demographic or ideological alignment then any of the policies and things that a union engages in advocating for will be in alignment with those things,” he said, adding: “We need a diverse member body so that we can advance ideologies that improve the working conditions and livelihood of all of our students and not just a demographic – not just a small demographic of our students.”

He said he agrees with the argument Sharon Smith makes in her book, “Subterranean Fire: A History of Working Class Radicalism in the United States,” regarding the way white supremacy was used to defeat post-Civil War Reconstruction. It was used “to systematically combat the potential for multiracial class unity,” Smith wrote, continuing: “Racism has been the centerpiece of ruling-class strategy ever since, intended to keep different sections of the working class permanently divided.”

Smith cited the use of the Ku Klux Klan as a vehicle for white supremacist “Redeemers” to overturn black empowerment initiatives during the Reconstruction era through lynching, and she noted the propensity of employers in the North during the era of Jim Crow to refuse to hire blacks – until massive labor shortages during World War I – except sometimes as strikebreakers to sew racial divisions.

White workers, Smith suggested, historically have not benefited from racist policies against black workers, as with racist poll taxes imposing property qualifications in the segregated South that disenfranchised both multitudes of blacks but also tens of thousands of white sharecroppers. Smith references recent work by Michael Reich showing correlations between income inequality between whites and blacks and the degree of inequality between whites.

“Whenever employers have been able to use racism to divide Black from white workers, preventing unionization, both Black and white workers earn lower wages,” Smith concluded. “This is just as true in recent decades as it was 100 years ago.”

Flowers said racism has often been used as a dividing tactic, but he suggested there are socio-historical nuances omitted from Smith’s argument.

“White workers are disadvantaged differently from black workers,” he said.

The roots of the differential disadvantages, Flowers said, are explained in ample documentation, including Cheryl Harris’ oft-cited article “Whiteness as Property,” featured in a 1993 issue of the Harvard Law Review. Harris showed how whiteness evolved from a mere racial identity into a form of property protected by law, paralleling the systems of domination against black persons and American Indians.

Oppression is experienced differently, Flowers added, but is always damaging to people’s ontological vocation to be fully actualized people.

“Our ability to stand in solidarity with each other hinges on the way in which we recognize each other’s situation of oppression as inherently valid to our lived experience,” Flowers said, drawing on his previous research coupling Paulo Freire’s philosophy with phenomenology for an academic conference paper.

Labor history is replete with that kind of solidarity, but has also been blighted by divisive racism.

Samuel Gompers, president of the American Federation of Labor, defended the principle of racial purity, advocated literacy tests to exclude immigrants, used the derogatory term “darkies” to refer to black persons and – even though most of the AFL excluded blacks – said he would let loose “a race hatred far worse than any ever known” if blacks became strikebreakers. During his presidency, the AFL incited the East St. Louis race riots in 1917, which were police-sanctioned beatings of black people and attacks on black residences.

But organizations like the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement, formed in the wake of a wildcat strike to oppose both company and established union racism at the Dodge Main auto factory in Detroit, showed unionism could be used to combat racism and gain support from white workers.

“I do not see the historical trajectory of the civil rights movement and other movements that were connected to it as divorced from the interests of the union,” Flowers said.

He said too few know Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated when he went down to Memphis to organize sanitation workers.

“I think unions and organized labor can be vehicles to address all kinds of institutional injustice,” he said.

Assuming Responsibility, Effecting Change 

For Flowers, GAU can become such a vehicle only if it increases the number and diversity of its membership, which is especially important now because contract negotiations with the university administration are ongoing.

“Even if we weren’t bargaining,” he said, “membership would be crucial to me because the more members and the more diverse members we have the better the union can represent the people it’s supposed to be representing – the people it’s supposed to be protecting.”

He added this means more members not just in terms of numbers, but also in terms of composition, in terms of graduate assistants from different departments and in terms of the variety of concerns and interests distributed across campus.

To address this, Flowers said he sat down with union officer Natalie Nash.

“Natalie and I have a very, very good working relationship, and I look forward to stepping up and supporting a lot of her membership initiatives,” he said about Nash, who was re-elected vice president for membership in April.

Nash said Flowers was one of the first people to welcome her to the union, and she was excited when she heard he had been elected president.

“I believe that with John’s leadership we will see more representation for students in minority groups and increased awareness of the union across campus and departments,” she wrote via email.

After elections, they decided to examine the bargaining list of current union members and divide the list by department in order to better target recruitment at departments where the coverage is light.

Flowers, who is president of three different sports clubs, said he overheard GAs at the Rec Center express feelings of discontent, and so he intends to meet with assistants at Recreational Sports and Services to discuss ways the union can address their unique needs.

He said he plans to be present for as many departmental orientations in August as possible.

“I kind of want people to know I’m an actual person that you can come talk to,” he said. “I’m not some shadowy figure in a cloak directing things behind the scenes.”

In addition to also engaging student RSOs – something GAU has not traditionally done – Flowers said he wants to reaffirm the “union’s commitment to engaging with the social conditions that affect its members’ lives.”

To advance those issues on a larger level, he helped organize for the May 6 Rally Against Bruce Rauner’s Budget Cuts.

“I think the governor may be disconnected from the reality of what he’s doing,” Flowers said.

Individuals from working class and lower-income backgrounds, people of color and persons with disabilities will be disproportionately affected by the proposed 31% cut to education funding and the likely tuition increases that result, he said, which negates – at least in part – the initiatives and recruitment strategies used by the university to increase demographic diversity.

“I would call this class warfare that has some racial undertones to it,” he said.

Austerity programs that gut services necessary for those who cannot otherwise afford them while annihilating funding for programs like the Counseling Center at SIUC are, Flowers said, placing greater stress on lower and middle income families just to survive.

He is surprised there have not been more incidences of suicide, he said, like when 22-year-old Leo Thornton shot himself in April in front of the US Capitol with a sign that read, “Tax the 1%”

Thornton was from Lincolnwood, Ill., only about 40 miles from Oak Park where Flowers grew up.

Rather than “presiding over” as union president, Flowers said he sees his presidency as service intent on mobilizing collective struggles against the situations of violence undergirding those individual acts of desperation that prevent people from realizing their potentials.

“If you have the capacity to effect positive change that reduces suffering in the world you need to exercise that capacity and you need to keep exercising that capacity regardless of how unpopular it makes you or how difficult it seems,” he said.


James Anderson is a doctoral candidate and a member of the GAU Communications Committee.  He has served as steward for the College of Mass Communication and Media Arts, and as co-chair for the Legislative and Political Action Committee. His academic writing has appeared in journals like Critical Studies in Media Communication and the International Review of Information Ethics. His journalistic work and editorials have been featured in news outlets including Truthout, In These Times, Toward Freedom, ROAR Magazine, ZNet and Counterpunch.



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