Dan Clawson, Presente!
Dan Clawson, labor organizer, scholar, and activist, died suddenly of a heart attack on May 7. We had just come off of our Massachusetts Teachers Association annual meeting, where Educators for a Democratic Union, the caucus Dan helped to form, beat back attempts to strip the budget of organizing funds and won a motion calling for a national teachers’ strike for the Green New Deal. In our caucus meetings throughout the weekend, Dan was clarifying strategy and reminding us that we shouldn’t back away from conflict when taking a principled stand. On the floor he roamed the aisles, counting to be sure we held a quorum.
I looked forward to reflecting on the meeting with him. What should we make of the hostility from the people EDU had displaced? Wasn’t it wonderful to see new leaders stepping up in the caucus—more and more members taking up the work, thinking strategically? What might the next year look like? What should we be thinking about and planning for?
We were in constant conversation, exchanging late-night emails when we weren’t hashing things out in person. And then his end of the conversation went silent.
We’d been talking since he first came to my aid, when I lost my job at the University of Massachusetts Amherst fighting a corporate assessment system for student teaching. We kept talking throughout my campaign for MTA president, and during the two terms I served. The whole caucus deserves credit for those election victories, but they would have been impossible without Dan’s strategic thinking and ridiculous gumption. We talked strategy. We talked building EDU. He kept me sane amid aggressive attacks by our internal opposition. He accepted my angst with gentle reminders to keep at the project.
Of many memorable conversations, one that sticks out is the evening he invited me to run for MTA president. It was after dinner at his home. My husband and I were sitting with him and his wife Mary Ann, talking EDU and MTA. Dan wondered who might be the right person to run for president. Who could run and be okay with losing? “And geez,” he thought out loud, “what about you? You would only be running to grow the caucus.”
I know better now the preparation that went into that dinner and that ask. Dan had identified me as a leader, brought me into the inner circle, and given me something to do. He communicated his confidence and trust in me. Over time, I saw how he did this with everyone.
What made him such a great organizer? Well, he talked to people. When he had a list he called up every person. He asked them questions. He listened. He made an ask: come to a meeting, sign a petition, run for office. And if he wasn’t successful at first, he didn’t give up hope. He came back, invited you into the movement, and gave you something to do.
So, yes, he did the work. But more, Dan’s organizing was sincere. He believed in our collective capacity to build a better world. He acted on that faith with each individual. His was a generous and determined heart. His manner communicated, “If we have a vision for a better world, we had damn well better be ready to do the work to get there. And, by the way, I have a plan.”
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In the midst of this enormous grief, I’ve been thinking of the many people out there who, like me, had been in conversation with Dan—who are now listening to the silence. I found myself wanting to send out a broadcast: “Were you in conversation with Dan?”
Because those of us who were, we have to pick back up the conversation. Live up to his lessons. Make those phone calls. Contact those people who need organizing. Ask questions. Listen. Trust enough to give people something to do. Invite others into the movement. Follow up.
I was talking with Mary Ann about Dan’s organizing conversations. “You know,” she said, “he had to learn how to do that.”
It is surprising to think of Dan having to learn how to organize. He seemed like such a natural. But I can imagine his discipline in deciding to learn. And I know his insistence that we all could and must learn.
Whatever particulars Dan had to learn, he taught me that there is no room for cynicism in fighting for a better world. Our work must be grounded in an unshakeable belief in our capacity—as individuals and as a collective—to act for and with each other. And in a trust that when we invite people to join the movement, they will say yes.