Articles by Debashis Dutta – 3

Index of Debashis’ Articles

Note: Debashis is writing a series of letters to his infant daughter, Anjuli.
This is the third of this series.

The Personal In The Political


As I write letters to our four-month old daughter, I realize I want to give her a lot of tools and perspectives to go forth into what I sometimes believe to be a challenging world. It’s fair to say that I want to “arm” her with as many resources as I can find so that she can use them to meander through her life. But I also realize that I’m also arming myself and creating some neat perspectives for me as I meander through my own life.

The first article/letter I wrote to Anjuli was about separating the political from the personal at work. I wrote that out of frustration and some “yucky” experiences at my own workplace. The ten little strategies to keep sanity and integrity were fun to implement.

But then, I wondered about the impact of this on my “personhood.” I discovered that as I focussed more on the “necessary” political distances, I became increasingly less personal in all areas of my life. Not good. And so, the next article/letter was born. It was about how to maintain the balance between separating the personal from the political and simply advised to become increasingly aware of situations and their impact.

The Personal is the Political

Through this personal-political dichotomy, the statement, “the personal is the political” has always been somewhere in the background. I’ve always wondered about how this statement fits with Into the Centre. “The personal is the political” comes from the feminist movement, which grew as a result of greater social consciousness in the 1960s and early 1970s.

The basic premise of “the personal is the political,” from my understanding, goes kind of like this: If I’m experiencing some kind of personal feeling of oppression or dissatisfaction, and if you are experiencing something similarly personal and if we know others who have similar experiences, then these personal experiences are no longer personal. Rather, they are shared. And they may just be the result of greater societal forces impinging on our basic rights and freedoms. And arguing for these rights and freedoms involves a combined effort, aimed at the larger forces. Hence, the personal becomes the political.

Personal Issues in the Political World of Work

How does this relate to the workplace? Well, in one word that could find some of us uncomfortable – unions. Now before I go on, I want to give credit to the feminist movement for the statement, “the personal is the political.” Any form of organized movement takes its mindset, philosophy, activities and actions from this one statement. We all know of all sorts of protest movements throughout history and throughout the world and this powerful statement is at the heart of it all.

I want to suggest that unions employ the same philosophy. A group of individuals work under an organization under management principles sometimes feel some personal challenges – wage inequities, the need for more vacation time, a fairer workplace environment, the need to make sure that the management does not move the company to a place that does not take into account the bests interests of thee employees, etc. They look to how other organizations and companies run and perhaps want similar benefits. And all the company or organization wants to do is have a competitive edge in the market and meet their mandates.

The union then, provides the vehicle through which these grievances are aired and settlements sought. Very clearly here, the personal becomes the political. But then the discomfort around union-management relations arises. All too often, we hear about labour unrest and worker-manger strife and grievances and conciliations and mediations and lockouts and strikes. Then both sides (management and union) appeal to the public for sympathy. And then, the media gets involved and there is misinformation, smear campaigns, skewed facts and sometimes, violence. What begins as a group of workers wanting something extra ends up into a massive political affair where both sides are engaged in an adversarial problem-solving process.

And there it is – the words “adversarial problem-solving.” An oxymoron. And then we mix the feminist adage with this and we come out with – “a personal problem-solving process within an adversarial political environment.” That just reads as so incredibly gross!! And yet, that is precisely what both unions and management do when they work out problems. They take personal issues, turn them into political barriers, try to engage in a respectful problem-solving process, all in an adversarial environment and mind-set.


So, how do we reconcile these three seemingly irreconcilable notions – “the personal is the political,” “adversarial problem-solving” and “management-union relations?” Is it even possible?

Into the Centre and The Phoenix Centre, through Wayne, Darlene and the ever-growing community of like-minded souls, subscribe to an extremely critical value base: By expressing the personal – openly, honestly, curiously – greater intimacy is created and the political walls come crumbling down. A real closeness between human beings is developed and greater understanding between us contributes to a greater sense of humanity.

So why does this model tend not to work in the workplace? Why do “the personal is the political,” “adversarial problem-solving” and “management-union relations” end up creating more problems than solutions in the workplace? My suggestion here is that unions and managers have one thing in common, but exceptionally different perspectives on the one thing – POLITICAL POWER. I have heard management types express a lot of anger and frustration about how they believe the unions seem to overpower the managers. Funny thing is, the unions say that the managers railroad employee rights. So, both camps are mutually unsupportive. But it doesn’t have to be this way, does it?

Personal Power/Political Power

The whole concept of power is an intriguing one. It sometimes appears that power in a union (political power) is overwhelming. Unions, when they strike, are alleged to harm people by cutting off services, blow a big hole in the economy and whatever other bad things unions are accused of. Similarly, management power (again, political power) is also overwhelming. Management people are despised when they make a trillion dollars more than the labourer, when they take lengthy ad expensive vacations, abuse employee rights and whatever other bad things executives are accused of.

Either way, it’s political power. Either way, it’s a collectiveness of sorts that adds to power. Management teams add to a collective. And, union members add to another collective. I do want to say that I think there are differences in the amount, level and impact of this mind of political power, but a discussion of that issue goes beyond the scope of this article.

What is more relevant here is noting that the collective activities of both unions AND managers contributes to a cumulative power which increases the political agenda and purpose of either camp. The adage, “strength in numbers” comes to mind.

Sometimes, I wonder if the increased emphasis on the political power building then, takes away from the personal power. AH HA !!! I knew that eventually I’d get to reconcile some of this. {Congratulations to those of you (and many thanks) for hanging on with me here. And virtual gifts and prizes to all who actually understand what the heck it is I’m trying to say.} Ok, so political power stems from a lack of personal power, then ends up encroaching further on personal power, making too many things political.

That’s a valuable statement. Political power stems from a lack of personal power, then ends up encroaching further on personal power, making too many things political.

Note that I am not trying to minimize the importance of managers and what I think is a specialized responsibility, nor am I devaluing the importance and what I believe to be the necessity for unions. Rather, I am questioning the impact of the POWER of these two political camps on the persons they are intended to represent.

They say that “power corrupts.” For the purposes of Into the Centre /The Phoenix Centre, I would venture to say that political power corrupts personal power. Political power (in the extremes) creates barriers, walls, power differentials, control, inequalities, harm, misinterpretation, and a lack of human integrity. And when political power touches human integrity, the risk of corrupting one’s personal power is high.

Unions and managers, for all their good intentions in keeping businesses alive, keeping workers working and maintaining rights have the potential to use their respective political power to really impose distance, adversity, tension and poor human relations and a usurping of personal power.

Does this sound like a workplace in which you either work or one that you manage (in some way)? Can you see how the “political” of your workplace contributes to the taking away taking away from the “personal” of the managers and the employees? Can you see how the personal is the political, but the POLITICAL CAN NEVER BE THE PERSONAL because of POWER ?

Can YOU, whether you are a manager, an executive, a finance officer, a director, a board member, an employee, a union leader, a supervisor, a lead hand, WHATEVER your place in your organization, contribute in some, very small, minute way to decreasing the “political,” by being more aware of your “personal”?

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