A proud first-generation Midwesterner, Puja is driven by the fight against injustice as well as the search for the perfect plate of fried chicken. She loves her community, her work, her calico cat and being outside.  This interview has been lightly edited for readability.

Puja Datta
Puja Datta

I am a union organizer. I help build new unions and work on existing unions throughout the Midwest, in distribution centers, non-profits, and a lot of immigrant-heavy woman of color work. That is something dear to my heart given that I am a first-generation woman of color.

Labor organizing is the kind of work that can change people’s lives at a really basic level. I get to change people from being at-will employees to being just cause. That is a gamechanger for most people, especially low-wage workers. Having a legally-binding contract that specifies wages, that specifies raises, that specifies how much you pay for health care, that gives you a basic procedure that a boss can’t come in and be like, “I don’t like the shoes you’re wearing, get out.”  That is actually a gamechanger in people’s lives and that for me is very meaningful.

I moved out of my house when I was 15. I got a full-time job working for Equifax. Everyone is familiar with Equifax now, right? It was an awful job. My job used to be trying to stop people who were fired or quit from getting unemployment benefits because the taxes go up for each employer when a person collects unemployment. So literally my job was to try and stop jobless people from getting money to be able to care for themselves for the benefit of corporations. I did this for almost 10 years. I did it because of the system we live in. I needed health care. I needed to pay my rent. I didn’t go to college. I just had to take care of myself.

Then I happened to see an AMA that Bernie Sanders did in 2015 talking about the same things I’ve been feeling for years. I got really involved in the Bernie campaign. I was the second most frequent donor to Democrats in Ohio that year. I was even a delegate for him. I traveled to four different states. I made thousands of phone calls. I’d never made even one political phone call before. I just went straight into it. I was just like, well, let’s do this. So I did. And through that process, I discovered two things.

One, I’m a good organizer. Like, this is a thing I can do. And two, the labor movement is really what felt like home for me because of all of my experiences. I really understood the plight of the worker because I lived a life that really made me understand it. My first job out of the private sector was as an internal organizer with a local union here in Columbus, Ohio. Then I got a job for the Working Families Party.

The union I work for now is really member-driven. It’s called the Chicago Midwest Regional Joint Board, CMRJB. I cover anywhere from Kentucky to Utah, but I’m based in Columbus.

I’m a troublemaker by nature. That’s who I am, that’s why I do this work. When sitting in a space of injustice, I never am gonna be that person who sits there and watches it happen.

I grew up in an abusive home and I learned right from the beginning how to read people. I learned how to read facial expressions, how to read body language, how to read intent behind what people say.  Tone. And that is very useful in organizing, because you can figure out how to move someone. You can agitate them.

I also am a really friendly person. I do a lot to make people comfortable. I crack jokes. I’m very Midwestern. That comes out. I’m first-generation; I was born and raised in Columbus. It’s doubly meaningful to be back here and doing the work here, because Columbus has been fly-over country for a lot of labor. There are thousands and thousands of workers here that need to be organized, and they’re mostly black and brown folks. It feels really good to be back where I’m from and be able to make a difference.

My union is really focused on organizing. They understand that to be relevant, to be strong and become stronger, the only thing you can do is bring new people into the movement. I get to work in a role that brings new people into the movement. That’s super fulfilling.

We think strategically about leveraging power points, moving the boss and moving the workers. It’s a lot of plotting. It’s the art of building people’s power and bringing them together. Generally it’s filled with a lot of phone calls, a lot of meetings, and a lot of research. Once every couple of weeks, I travel for work. Right now, I spend maybe 2-3 nights every couple of weeks in Indianapolis. I’ll go to Chicago; I’ve gone to Milwaukee. Wherever they need me, off I go.

Seeing people move from being hesitant or being afraid or being convinced that they have to ask for power to knowing that they don’t have to do that--that to me is the beautiful thing. I do this work because of capitalism. We are faced with these corporations that make billions off of our labor and our bodies and our minds. And they don’t give a shit about what that does to us. But I’m over here and I get to do something that is like, actually it doesn’t have to be that way. You can stand up for yourself and say, I can do more. I can have more. That is beautiful. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.

I probably spend most of my time just communicating with people. Whether that’s over phone calls, emails, Signal. We always say to be a really effective union organizer, you pretty much have to be on call 24/7. We work with people who work third shift, with people who have no schedules. If something comes around at 1 o’clock in the morning and they really need your help, you have to be there for them. I just maintain levels of communication at all times. I will send funny stuff. You’re really not just building a work relationship, right? You’re building a comrade-relationship. Someone you’re in the movement with. I always think about it from that lens.

We always think about the organizers being the invisible hand that really draws and pulls the movement together. If you’re doing the work correctly, you never want it to be about you. It’s not about my life. It’s about motivating other people and guiding other people to do something very difficult, to stand up for themselves in this space of crushing capitalism.

I’m tired pretty frequently. I have to make it a real effort to eat well. I have to make an effort to sleep well. It just requires me to take better care of myself, and I frankly fail at that sometimes. There are moments where this work is overwhelming. Or it’s exhausting. Where I’ve been working 12 hours and I have to get up early and drive to Indianapolis and work another 10 hours. There’s really no end. I’m figuring that out.

If you’re on the road all the time, it’s really hard to be a settled human being. I often think that people who are on the road a lot are not settled in the mind, if that makes sense. I have a hard time thinking about buying a house and having children and really settling in and doing something permanent like that. It’s not appealing to me. So I think people who think that way are probably more suited to the work.

I often joke that I’m married to the movement. I don’t really date. I do this work because I really strongly believe in the labor movement, and I really strongly believe that this is how we make real change happen. In that way, philosophically and soulfully, I am so fulfilled. And so happy to just do the work that makes me fulfilled and get paid for it. On the other hand, it can be lonely. I’m on the road a lot, and I’m in hotels alone a lot. And I miss my friends, and I miss dating sometimes.

It’s also lonely sometimes because other people outside of the movement don’t really get organizing. My parents have no clue what it means to be a union organizer. They’re just like, “What do you do? You win people unions? What does that mean?” You spend so much time focused on other people’s needs. It can be really difficult to get people to understand that I have needs too. People don’t know how to support you. It can be frustrating. It’s incumbent upon us to be open about how we’re feeling and the stress we’re taking on. In Columbus, we had two organizers die this year. Both of them were racial justice organizers. One was deeply involved in the Juvenile Justice League here. She actually died by suicide, and she was so young. She was like 25 and was the light of this city.

She just kept telling people she was tired, over and over. She was tired. But she didn’t know how to communicate what that meant. When that happens, it’s so lonely. It feels like nobody gets it and nobody will ever get it. I think it made all of us sit up and think about what we are doing. We need to be more in community. We need to rethink what the hell self-care means. It doesn’t mean going and getting pedicures. Self-care actually means figuring out how to be vulnerable with people so they know how to support you even when you don’t know how to talk about it.

A month after she died, another really prominent Latinx organizer in the community passed away. He had a heart attack. The physical toll of the stress, of capitalism, and of fighting the system, it takes a real physiological toll on us. And we don’t talk about that enough because we’re the ones who are like, you can do this, we can do this! We’re the backbones of these movements, right? But being a backbone also means you need support. We need to figure out what we need and figure out ways to make it low cost and accessible to people.

We need to really make sure that the health care benefits we are offering organizers are including mental health and are including low-cost prescriptions and things like that. Because physiological responses need physiological solutions, often. Your mental health is equally as important as your physical health. You gotta have both to be effective. That is a lens that I think a lot of institutions could use.

Speaking as a person of color, you have to provide real pathways to folks of color. That means maybe not having a Bachelor degree requirement. I don’t have one. I have an Associate’s, and I had to work my ass off while working full-time to get that. It’s not always possible. Different unions require a graduate degree or a Bachelor’s degree for union reps. And it’s like, you don’t need that to do that work. That’s just you being elitist. So we also need to look at our hiring practices and the way that we’re bringing people in and the way that we’re recruiting people.

I think working in the labor movement is a little different because it is one of the last spaces where a lot of the other things don’t matter. We always tell members you are a worker first in an employment situation. You are. You’re a person first, you’re a worker first, and then is everything else they will use to divide you out. That’s the one baseline thing that everyone has in common when you’re in a workspace. I have seen people change their mindsets in situations like that. They’ve been able to move past stuff. There’s a real kinship there.

That said, there are also doors I have to knock that have rebel flags on them that also have signs that say “I’m a proud union home.” I have to figure out what is my line, what is my boundary in a lot of these scenarios. I’m not going to knock that door.  I’m not going to do that. And I have to be willing to back that up. So it’s definitely made our jobs more difficult. It’s made my life more difficult. Shit, I live in Ohio. I’ve been followed off the highway by people with Trump bumper stickers being told to go back to where I come from. The Proud Boys literally had a march right down the street from my apartment two weeks ago. I think it’s just going to get harder and harder as we move forward.

Another thing to think about is how we support each other through these moments. I think you have a lot of well-intentioned white organizers and white folks in general in the movement who want to think of themselves as great allies, but when you have an issue and you talk to them, they get defensive. So I think there’s a lot of work that needs to be done from the white organizer angle as well. I would love to see that being done at a greater level and having some real uncomfortable conversations amongst the groups. Discomfort is necessary for growth.  

We need to base build. We’re going to have to have mass obstruction of the economic system. We’re going to have to have mass obstruction of the information system. We need to prep people for strikes. We need to prep people for militant action. And we need to teach people how to organize. The end, that’s it. To me, if we don’t teach people those things, we might as well give up.

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