why bodywork is a trade and needs to be unionized


I grew up in a family surrounded by people who primarily worked with their hands and people who primarily worked with their heads. We talked, when I was growing up, about blue collar jobs and white collar jobs, a kind of political-neutral way of talking about class.

I went to college after high school, dropped out after two years, and then came back to finish and get a BA in my early 30s. It was not a small thing when I dropped out. My mother had fought to get an education. She was raised in a family that didn’t see further education, except for nursing and teaching, as necessary for women.

Throughout my 20s and into my 30s, I had a range of jobs: park ranger, wine seller, bookshop worker, waitress, cab driver, political canvasser, gardener, coffee shop barista, writing teacher, office cleaner and more. I also did a lot of unpaid work. Somewhere in my early to mid-30s, I started getting paid work that was more about what I thought than about my practical skills. I got jobs in communications and then in fundraising and development. In the early 90s, fundraising was pretty straight up. I ask you or a foundation for money and you say yes or no. I shared some stories, you listened to all of the stories, looked at the cash you had, and then gave some of it away. People who had wealth were more or less accessible. (And yes, the culture of wealth accumulation sucks and we should not live a context where rich people get to make these kinds of decisions but this is not the point of this piece.) Under the Clintons and Bushes, wealth got even more privatized and difficult to reach. The whole social layer of financial planners and investment advisors and donor advised funds that emerged through the 80s and into the 90s means that fundraising became less and less about clear relationships between someone who has cash and someone who needs it.  Fundraising morphed into a giant game of Strategy with multiple shell games; success is ever more about the social webs you can weave yourself into and the relationship access you do or don’t have. And the darned shells keep moving, where did the money go, who has it, how do we get it? Exhausting.

I am a bodyworker now. For the last 16 years I have trained in craniosacral therapy and other forms of bodywork. This means I have a trade. I have learned a skill and I have practiced it. That skill is one that I share in community, looking for relationships of trade between what I can do and what you need. I like having a trade. I like what it implies. I like that it’s harder to bullshit around a trade. I mean, I can give you a song and dance about what a fantastic plumber or gardener or massage therapist I am but if your pipes keep leaking, the food isn’t growing and you experience zero difference in your tight shoulders, then you aren’t coming back.

Trade is old and its history is tied to everything from solid local relationships to forced takeovers. It is as small as what happens between two neighbors growing different vegetables in their gardens, as large as massive land- and sea- based routes used for wool, spices, silk or for the World Trade Organization (WTO)  and as violent as the infrastructure that justified the selling of human beings as a form of economics.

Trade is defined by the context around it. I prefer my trade to be local, relational, and based on word of mouth and reputation rather than a marketing plan. I want the people around me to decide if this work is relevant to their lives and the strength of our communities. Trade’s origins are organized around a felt sense of the collective. This felt sense piece is important - it’s where intimacy lives. It’s what builds trust. Trade in the sense of the WTO is not about intimacy, it’s about power. Trade without straight up conversations about power is just opening the space for economic bullying.

Trade unions emerged alongside the swelling of capitalism. Once feudalism ended in Europe, a mechanism was needed to protect these newly emancipated laborers. The trade (or labor) unions folks in the US are most familiar with emerged as a response to the heavy industrialism of the 19th and 20th centuries. Since its beginnings, the right of those who share work to come together and build collective power rather than individual wealth has been the object of control by the state and by company owners, sometimes violent, sometimes fought through legal structures, but always present.

Bodywork, or practices like massage and craniosacral therapy and chiropractic and myofascial release and reiki and healing touch and the 344 other types listed here, emerged out of multiple locations. Many if not most forms of bodywork are traditional cultural practices, like Abhyanga massage and Shiatsu and Huna Kane. Sometimes these have been taught willingly by cultural elders to outsiders. Far too often they have been taken by people outside of lineage and relationship and then turned into a trademarked money-making profession. This thing called bodywork is either something that people learn through traditional or apprenticeship-based systems or, in the US, through paying money to take classes from professional schools.

Most of the time bodywork is not described as a trade. It is described as a profession*. Massage and craniosacral and shiatsu schools are generally operated and taught by people who have no lineage-relationship to the culture of the practice. These same schools charge significant tuition to students, some of whose people come from the cultures that those practices emerged within. Labor needs to be compensated, teachers need to be taught AND people need to have access to their own traditions. Many forms of bodywork expect some form of certification to practice. Few are available through health insurance programs which means that most bodyworkers have to charge cash rates. The standard rates are high - between $75 and $200 for an hour in my city. These “market rates” maintain class structures by ensuring that this kind of care is only available to those with cash in their pocket. When bodywork is available through health insurance plans, it only covers a few forms and is usually available only through high end plans and/or in relationship to a particular accident or injury and/or only within specific regional health care systems. In Minneapolis, where I live, there are a fair number of integrative care practitioners and acupuncturists or massage therapists working within the hospital and clinic system. That is not true in Alexandria, Minnesota - about 120 miles away.

Having a trade and being professional both refer to the work that a person does. Trade is a relational word. Trade can’t exist on its own; it is, by definition, tied to the livelihood of another. Professional is a word about an individual. It comes out of religious traditions, when an individual professed their faith as a way of entering the clergy. A professional is rooted in the right of an individual to claim and define their own work. A trade is rooted in the need for work to exist in relationship between two people or communities. Nothing says that I can’t claim and define my own work within the trade that I practice. It’s just that, by definition, that trade is about the people I interact with as much as it is about my vision. Like I said earlier, there’s less chance of bullshit in the realm of trade than profession.

Bodyworkers who seek to be in right-relationship, who hold the complexity of the cultural and traditional lineages of care work and who are grounded in economic justice principles often struggle between using our work as service to those who most need it, earning enough money to pay our bills, and earning enough money and having enough space for our own care. This is not a “woe is us” moment, this is a reflection on choice within capitalism. Additionally, bodyworkers seeking to work outside of diagnostic and professionalized systems often have little capacity for tending the business of doing bodywork, let alone their own bodies.

Here is what I don’t have enough time for but would love to support anyone else doing: organizing a trade union for bodyworkers. If you build it, I will come. If you start building it, I will happily have conversations with you about what it looks like. In case you are interested in building it, here are some guiding principles I would put on the table:

  1. We understand that historical and generational trauma are real. We know how systems (of race, of gender, of class, etc) operate on our bodies is part of what impacts our lives. We recognize as bodyworkers that it is our responsibility to continue to learn and deepen our practice in attending to these truths with every client we work with.

  2. We recognize and lift up the cultural and historical lineages of many of the body-based practices that bodyworkers use. We recognize and honor the many generations of individuals who have built these practices within their own cultural and historical contexts. We seek to be in right relationship to the ancestor-elders of the healing traditions we practice.

  3. We recognize that there is no such thing as a “normal” body. We honor the right of each individual to name what healing means for them, to define for themselves what is well for their body.

  4. We advocate for apprentice-model learning for those interested in learning modalities. This might include working with schools and other training facilities to broaden their accessibility and cultural alignment.

  5. We work to shift state laws on the regulation of bodywork. These laws shift from one state to the next. Most states demand some form of certified training before one can become a practitioner. This means that people who were trained traditionally can not legally practice in their state without then also going through a sanctioned school.

  6. We work to collectively define sliding scale practices, practices around payment scales, and peer to peer collective learning networks. This includes being in conversations about wealth and the accumulation of wealth. Just as the body asks us, we ask each other in community: what is enough?

  7. We share an evolving code of ethics that is grounded in and aware of cultural and power differences on the role of healing and bodyworkers within communities, on the impact of trauma in the bodyworker-client relationship, and that center’s the client’s safety and liberation as well as the safety and liberation of the bodyworker.

  8. And finally, and most importantly, we build solidarity and common cause relationships with other people working in healthcare*. This could include SEIU and the multiple nurses unions, with homecare workers through the National Domestic Workers Alliance, with UNITE and food service workers who provide nutritional care at hospitals and other care spaces, and with others. We could organize bodyworkers to experience their trade alongside the thousands of isolated, low paid, and often disrespected people, many undocumented or new immigrant or multigenerational low income, who are also bodyworkers and whose hands touch the bodies of those who need direct care in their homes and elsewhere.

For a lot of years, I was a member of the National Writer’s Union. This union emerged in the 1980s in order to fight against President Reagan’s attacks on journalistic expression. They watchdog the large publishing and distribution conglomerates that have defined book selling for the last generation. They fight for more racial and gender diversity within the publishing world, to protect writer’s copyrights and pay, and they work to navigate the complex world of free internet access and blogging by both supporting a free internet and supporting and valuing writer’s work. I loved being a member of the NWU. I like being a member of a union.

Like I said earlier, I am not going to organize this. But I am happy to blow on any embers that might be glowing and wanting to flame. If you have ideas you want to share or actions you want to take, go here and let me know. If I hear from anyone, I’ll write a follow up blog post about what folks have said. If you are interested and someone wants to organize something, I’ll keep the emails for the people who have responded.

The poetry of evolution is all about building collective power. Our movement from living as single celled organisms to become multi-cellular beings is a movement of building collective power. Our bodies are dependent on life around us - plants that grace us with oxygen, life forms that nourish and protect us, all connected. Our practices are dependent on life around us - the people who honor us with the trust of their bodies. I wish for all of us that our trades are one part of a chain of other trades; practices that feed us, house us, teach us, and care for us, each dependent on the one before. After all, this is often the context that fed the emergence of these traditions in the first place.

*I want to honor that one of the complexities with any form of touch-based support is the chance of intentional and unintentional harm. Most professional bodies that certify massage therapists or chiropractors to practice carry with them a code of ethics about standards of care. I deeply deeply believe in systems of accountability that exist to protect vulnerable people coming for care. So thank you to everyone who started these systems for that reason.
*I am very grateful to Mia Mingus and others who created this visual and explanation of the medical industrial complex. Building solidarity across healthcare and healing communities is also about resisting institutionalized care that refuses to acknowledge its own history and is unable to respond to the true complexity of people’s lives and wellness.

The image is a sweatshirt from FreeFrom, an organization working to support the financial security and long term sustainability of survivors of domestic violence.