Unite-Here! organizer Ryan Nissim-Sabat invited us to his home in West Philly. We ate baklava, played chess, and talked about the hunger strike he was leading, what drives him to organize resistance and the reasons he remains hopeful about our chances to win.
Rebekah: You’re organizing a hunger strike? Can you tell us about that?
Ryan: Our union has over 2,000 members who are in the school system, and half those members are being laid off. It’s going to have a big impact on children’s safety. The sole job that these workers have is to be a mother and a grandmother away from the kids’ homes. They’re in the hallways making sure that kids aren’t getting in fights, and in the lunch room, making sure that there isn’t any bullying going on. And they’re all being laid off, every single one of them.
The city has basically been shackled by the state because the state refuses to fund black and poor kids in Philadelphia in comparison to the suburbs. It’s disgusting the differences in the amount of money they put in per student. They say they don’t have the money, but they’re building a $400 million prison. There’s money. It’s just where they put the money. But, if they say they don’t have money, they can get concessions from the teachers’ union.
I think there’s obviously a shift in this country toward privatizing everything, including education. Even as they’re making these cuts to the public schools, they’re setting up charter schools that are on track to evolve into non-profit private entities.
Rob: So, what’s the game plan, other than, like, not eating for 10 days?
Ryan: We’re going to have water. That’s part of it. The other part of it is to have fun. That’s definitely part of the plan. We’ve got some parents. We’ve got some workers who are going to come out on union leave. We’ve got one union staff, and then one hotel worker. Six total for the first week and then four for the second. Then the state is going to vote on the budget.
Rebekah: Are you participating in the hunger strike?
Ryan: No. I’m doing the logistical support for the fasters, like medical support. It has not been easy. Getting these doctors to be a part of this support team is like trying to recruit a scared worker to the committee. We’re going to be on the sidewalk on Broad Street, one of the major thoroughfares. It’s going to be a shrine. Right in front of the governor’s Philadelphia office. We’re going to put these walls up, and people can come by and leave notes and flowers. Then we’ve got rallies, and lots of people coming by to support.
Rebekah: So, what do you do for fun? I mean, other than organizing hunger strikes?
Ryan: Well, organizing is very fun. I mean, it’s very intense. I also play chess. I’m actually going to bring it to the hunger strike. I’m excited about teaching people. I mean, come on, what are you supposed to do for 15 hours a day?
Rob: What made you choose this tactic?
Ryan: We did a rally last week. We had 400 people there. Two days later, they laid off 3,000 workers. I actually think people in power have become numb to rallies and even civil disobedience. Civil disobedience is predictable. It’s planned. You know what’s going to happen. The police know. It’s not what it was in the sixties when it actually created chaos and upheaval. It’s now standard.
The hunger strike feels different. When I called these doctors over the last three days, and I said, “I’d like you to be part of the medical support team.” They say, “Whoa! Wow! I can’t believe you guys are doing this. Wow, I really admire you for doing this!” That never happens when you say, “We’re having a rally next Wednesday. We’d like you to come on out!” Nobody ever says to you, “Whoa!” This is unique. People are putting their lives on the line.
Rob: It’s inspiring. It seems a lot of civil disobedience these days isn’t all that effective.
Ryan: Yeah, like, the civil disobedience is rather obedient? When the school district announced that they were closing 20 buildings, 20 preschools, a number of months ago. 17 people got arrested. 17 people is pointless. I mean, what is that? 1,000 people getting arrested is very different. I think 1,000 people getting arrested actually is significant. And that’s what’s not happening. It’s 17 people. It’s 50 people.
Rob: 700 people got arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge during Occupy.
Ryan: Right, that’s significant.
Rob: Yeah, it’s memorable. Like, when ACT-UP shut down the bridges and tunnels in New York in 1995. Or the Battle of Seattle in 1999.
Ryan: As a tactic, you do a rally, and a bunch of people show up, but only a few get arrested, and the further you go with an action, the fewer people are willing to do it. Our hope is that this is going to trigger people to do one day, two day, three day solidarity fasts.
Rebekah: So, if rallies aren’t always that effective, what value do you see to them? How do you keep the vibe collective and hopeful, instead of people just being angry, like, fuck you?
Ryan: Well, I think Fuck You is all right at times. And even if often times rallies don’t move power players, they have a profound impact on the people participating. We’ve had rallies that people tell us are the first one they’ve ever been to. And these people are 50 years old! There’s something there that inspires people to believe that mass action and critical mass organizing can actually produce and win.
Rob: I feel like a lot of people had that feeling back in 2008 around the Obama campaign – that we could come together and change things by electing a president who seemed to share our values, but the last few years have shown that not to be so true. Do you think Obama’s first term has disillusioned people, so that instead of being plugged in like they were during that campaign, they’re now just kind of checked out?
Ryan: People weren’t plugged into politics in 2008. People were plugged into a two-month presidential campaign. That’s not plugged into politics. It’s exciting. You feel like there’s momentum. There’s ads everyday. There’s literature in your door. There’s people knocking on your door. But it’s just a political campaign.
There is not a political movement of people that’s going to continue – it’s just a vote. I’m not fooled by national political participation into thinking that there’s a movement being built. People are just turning out for a vote. There’s not the follow up. Or at least there isn’t an organization that can capture people’s imagination six months later or eight months later around those political ideas.
Rob: So, the last few years haven’t changed your attitudes?
Ryan: No. I mean, I’d rather have somebody with these ideals than any of the presidents who’ve been elected since I’ve been alive, but what are we operating in? We don’t live in a socialist country. We live in American capitalism. What do you expect?
Rob: Fair enough. Do you think you’re building a movement?
Ryan: I hope so. What we’ve struggled with is pushing our union to be about more than bread and butter workplace issues. I think, often times, the things in workers’ lives that are the most challenging and that worry them the most go beyond their schedule or whether they get points for being late at work. That stuff annoys them, and it’s something we should fight for, but the things that are really important, that they value, are what their neighborhood looks like and what school their kids go to and whether or not the busses are running late at night and how close the hospitals are.
Rob: We spent the last few days driving around New Jersey and New York, and the systemic racism and drastic inequality is so clear. I don’t understand how anyone could be involved in public policy and not even see that.
Ryan: I don’t think they drive through. They build a wall around it. What did a worker in one of the hotels say recently? You shouldn’t have to go to juvie to get your GED! They just built a new prison down the street. It’s no surprise. You see it in every city for the last 15 years. The industries are prison construction. In Philadelphia, it’s casinos. You look around Philadelphia, and a lot of the construction is at the universities – Penn, Temple, Drexel. But two out of three of them are private institutions, and they cost so much to get in.
Rob: So, I organized with you out in rural Pennsylvania, building a union of casino workers, almost all of whom were white, rural people, and now you’re here in Philadelphia, a city that’s mostly people of color?
Ryan: Yeah, but not entirely. Philadelphia still has a significant white working-class. What it doesn’t have are immigrants, which is fascinating. I mean there’s a small Mexican, Vietnamese and now Liberian community, but in comparison to Boston, DC, Chicago, no. Reminds me a lot of Cincinnati.
Rob: How would you describe the difference between organizing here in the city and organizing in rural parts of middle America? I mean, revolutionaries have always believed in bringing together factory workers from the cities and the peasants in the fields?
Ryan: Haha, yeah. Except a lot of the “workers in the fields” are now Wal-Mart workers or prison workers, and so many of the factories are gone. But they’re both important. They’re both necessary.
I will say that I am moved by being in the fifth largest city in the country. 1.5 million people seems like a lot of potential. I often think about how in an organizing drive, you have a department of 35 workers, and you’ve got to organize those 35 workers. You’ve to get the leaders of those 35. You can’t etch-a-sketch it. You’ve got to get those 35. It’s very different than being in a city of 1 and a half million, and be like, where are the sparks? So, I love that. Every city I’ve been in – Cincinnati, Toronto, Sacramento – there’s something about it. Like, take this block. There’s 70 people that live on this block. That’s insanity! If you think about what that means in terms of capacity and community, and you think, if I was in a room with 70 people, man, that’s a lot of people. There’s a lot of possibility with that!
Rob: As part of building this movement, do you think it’s important for the rank and file to think critically about capitalism and imperialism? There’s a whole thing in the Russian revolution where these guys go out to the countryside and get the peasants thinking in abstract, militant terms about overthrowing the czar.
Ryan: I think the first thing is, if the question is, “Should the rank and file be thinking about imperialism?” that automatically makes it dense. That automatically makes it difficult to grasp. I do think the rank and file should and do think about inequality and what’s fucked up in the world. So, I think if we start out with, we’re going to talk critically about imperialism, then, like, I don’t even know where we’re going. I mean, what’s happening? But let’s talk about how much money your boss makes vs. you. Let’s talk about the wealth that the five richest people in the city have vs. this entire fucking neighborhood. Let’s talk about what role this company has around the world. Then we’re talking about the same things, and people can swallow it and grasp it.
We’ve done a number of city-wide trainings and committee trainings where we’ve talked about, okay, let’s look at wealth in this country. And we line up some chairs, and you have one guy who has seven chairs all to himself, and you have ten people try to sit on the remaining two chairs. And, we’re like, this is what wealth looks like in this country. And people are like, uh huh. So, I just think, of course we need to talk about that, we can’t just talk about fucking schedules.
Rob: I totally agree with you. I wish that critique was more widespread. I think it’s growing, but it wasn’t really the culture with the state employees’ union I worked with in Vermont.
Ryan: Well, you were part of a public sector union. Private sector unions have different fights than public sector unions. You experienced different organizing cultures. That’s why, AFSCME and SEIU are largely engaged in electoral organizing – their contracts depend on who’s in office. So they have significant political operations because those people determine what the budget looks like. If we could actually vote on who’s going to run the casino, ha!
Rob: Right. But, I mean, the economy is bigger than corporate casinos. What are your thoughts on cooperative businesses that are controlled by the workers instead of by capitalists?
Ryan: What was that documentary that Naomi Klein made?
Rob: “The Take” about Argentina?
Ryan: Yeah, it’s a great film. I mean, it’s pretty awesome. I mean, there’s got to be some optimism that right now there are industries that are abandoned by capitalists, and so the means of production are left for the workers to say, fuck it, we’re going to run it ourselves! But that’s very different than taking it, and taking it while it’s in operation. Those are two different struggles.
Look at Philadelphia. You drive around neighborhoods in North Philly, and you see factory, after factory, after factory. It’s a cemetery. It’s a factory cemetery. You get a sense of nostalgia, as you drive by. Like, damn, this neighborhood? These people used to walk one block on the way to work at that factory. Look at it. But they’re just shells. I mean, there’s nothing. It’s not like there’s machinery left in there to take. They’re essentially bricks. I mean, I think it’s interesting architecture, but, stories like New Era Windows & Doors, the worker-cooperative in Chicago, are rare. Capitalists abandoned their machinery – that just doesn’t happen.
Rob: Maybe it’s the means of consumption that we need to reclaim? I mean, you work a job, and even if it’s a good union job, you still go and buy groceries from capitalists. You still pay rent to capitalists.
Ryan: Yeah, I think the influx of farmers markets in cities has been awesome. Do you remember the one in Washington, PA? That was a decent sized farmers market that happened once a week. If you look at farmers markets now vs. ten years ago, I imagine that there are significantly more of them. Even the one here, I often find new folks, which in turn has created these food trucks. How different is that from going to Giant or Applebee’s?
Rob: Still though, why do you think there isn’t more widespread and powerful dissent in our society right now? So many people are getting exploited. I wonder if it’s because a lot of people have so much debt that they’re scared to do anything that would risk their income?
Ryan: Maybe. But I mean, people have done a shitload in the past with nothing. Maybe people feel like there’s too much to risk. I mean, there’s definitely a group that thinks that. But, I think there’s two things. One, there’s very little organization. Right? Or an organization to move it. Two, how many distractions are there in American society? From television, to entertainment to sports teams.
Rebekah: I see a big difference between people who are my age whose parents parked them in front of the TV and people my age whose parents didn’t do that. And, kids who are just a few years younger than me had the Internet and video games as the norm. I think the real difference is that we don’t teach our children how to be people anymore. We’re socialized by machines – it makes sense that we become part of the corporate machinery, because we don’t know our neighbors or care about what’s going on with them.
Ryan: Yeah. There’s so little interaction. One of my favorite days in my life, in my 38 years, was the blackout in Toronto in 2004. Do you remember that? It happened in New York too. No electricity in the entire city. I mean, can you imagine being in Toronto or New York, and there’s no electricity?
Rob: It’s like a general strike.
Ryan: It’s crazier than that! No electricity! The two most amazing things that I remember is: one, being in the city and looking up and seeing the stars like I was in a field because there’s no light pollution, and two, everybody was outside barbecuing and grilling and being on the street because they didn’t have televisions, and they didn’t have anything to be inside for. And being like, this is what it would be like if we weren’t inside all of the time. This is amazing!
Rebekah: So, what do you think is real in your life now? What keeps you fighting? Is it your son?
Ryan: Obviously. I mean it always comes back to feeling like I am doing something that makes my parents proud, and that I’m walking in a path that’s been laid down by my parents, and their parents before them.
Rebekah: Tell us more about your folks. What are some of the things that they laid down?
Ryan: My parents? My father is a Sephardic Jew. My mom is a Polish and Irish Catholic. When they wanted to marry, both families decided, No, but here they are 38 years later, still loving each other. So that piece has meant a lot to me, that two people who come from very different places – my mom grew up outside Philly, and my dad grew up in New York City – could come together. In some ways, I often think it embodies the union. You go into workplaces, and there are people from all walks of life who’ve got to figure out how to come together to fight.
My father came to this country when he was six, and my grandparents lived in Bulgaria at a time at which the Nazis had a relationship with the Bulgarian government, and my grandfather had to work in one of the Nazi work camps, and my grandmother had to wear a yellow star. So there’s a real sense of what we have to fight against, and that’s personal.
And then, you know, I look back on a couple experiences. When I was a kid, my dad was in the PTA, and they were having a Christian prayer before the meetings, and my father was like, you can’t do this in the schools. This was in the early eighties. And my mom didn’t want him to fight it, and he pushed to get the folks who were in the PTA voted out. And, I think, just the fact that he would do this, and in Viriginia, which is a pretty conservative place. It’s pretty brave. It was something he believed in. So, I’ve always thought about how uncomfortable he was. In those moments when you feel like you’re the only person, that’s what he felt. And he won. They were voted out.
When I was in eighth grade, we rode the bus. And Wayne Carney, he was one of the bullies on the bus, he called my dad a “shrink.” And psychologists are called shrinks all the time, but I didn’t know what that meant, and he called my dad a name. And growing up, often times, I struggled with having a Jewish father and a Catholic mother, but at that moment, he called my dad a name. And I stepped up to Wayne Carney, and he was the bully, and I tripped him, and ran. To this day, I’m still a long-distance runner, haha. But, like, I think about that, how in that moment, I was defending my dad.
Rebekah: You have this calm around you. What role has faith played in your life?
Ryan: Well, my parents raised me, going to church when I was with my mom’s side of the family, and going to temple when I was with my dad’s family. And I remember, being like, “You’re Jewish. You’re Catholic. And I’m broccoli!” Just no understanding. Today, all three of us are not religious. We don’t practice, at least week to week. We do Christmas, and we light the candles on the menora. We did a sedar this year, which was really fun. It’s a good tradition. It’s just one of those events, to me, that really has the potential to pull in people on multiple faiths. Tracy’s not Jewish, but it brought back memories of what it was like when I was growing up.
Rob: It seems that even if your faith isn’t necessarily religious, you’re still a person of faith. To go into these places where the factories have shut down, and people are feeling hopeless and inspire people to believe that if we stand strong, we can do this. That is an act of faith.
Ryan: Yeah. Hmm… It’s just as powerful. But it’s different having faith in us vs. having faith in something we can’t see.
Rebekah: I don’t know that it’s actually that different. Like, I have faith in myself because I have faith in something outside myself. Whether that thing outside myself is a collective or etherial thing, I’ve come to a place where I feel that it’s not important that I understand it. I guess in a way it’s different, but in another way, it’s just not.
Rob: Real faith isn’t dogma. It’s not pretending to believe. It’s about actually believing in your values. In the face of such adversity, how is the union able to stick to its values?
Ryan: Well, if we don’t do something different, unions aren’t going to exist. It’s a 30-year trend downward. I feel like it’s one step at a time. If they go through with laying off 1,200 workers, do we just roll over? Do we just give up? Do we say, okay, well, hopefully something else happens? Or do we fight? So, we’ve made the decision to fight and to do something drastic. And many people say, that’s not going to make a difference, and it might not. And at the end of these two weeks, the Republican governor might be as much of an asshole as he was last week. That’s pretty possible. I do think it has the potential to define us as a union in this city and put companies on watch, and I think it’s inspiring to other people. I feel pretty good about that, especially being in the midst of a very long organizing drive where we’re not in the majority.
Rebekah: As I see it, the spirit of solidarity is bigger than organized labor. Maybe with unions in decline, it’ll just take a different form?
Ryan: Well, you can build community without confronting power. I think it’s valuable. Before I was here, I was in the alleyway with five other couples and bunches of kids, and we weren’t confronting power, we were building community. I’m a block captain. Tracy’s a block captain. We’re not confronting the city on the block. We’re trying to figure out how to have black parties so neighbors know each other.
But, I think unions have a much larger upside because they confront capital in a very different way. I did community organizing six months after my first union organizing gig. And I remember thinking, damn. A, it just doesn’t make people with money sweat. And B, the people that we’re talking to, they’re also not facing fear and getting through fear. It just didn’t have the intensity.