Saturday, September 22, 2012

An Organizing Attempt

I just withdrew my case against my employer. That officially closes my attempt to unionize the Dillons within Wichita, KS I had worked at. I didn't want the case to move onto the appeal process and put a scar on possible uses of the NLRB within Kansas, so that's why I didn't go through it. I'm a fairly young organizer, and this was my first serious attempt at using the law in practice.

I had kept a work journal. I can't emphasize enough how useful this was to me in the process of filing. There was no way I would have been able to remember all the information which the NLRB lawyer had asked for without it. I used a format suggested by the Kansas City IWW Branch which recorded who worked, what their shift was, and their duties that day. I also recorded my scheduled time as well as my actual clock in/out times. In my notes I recorded the general mood of the day, whether or not I got breaks, infractions which other workers performed, interactions between myself and the boss, interactions between the boss and other workers, and sometimes some closing thoughts on the campaign. I don't know if I should have recorded all of this, because I never went to court and so didn't get to admit my worker journal as evidence. But it did help in filing a great deal.

I learned that the work conditions make it difficult to organize in service sector jobs. That isn't to say that it's not possible, but that the work conditions as well as the social conditions of Kansas make it so workers tend to sympathize with power -- the boss -- and don't believe in themselves. If they do believe in themselves, they don't see the value in collective action. This made me think that the union battle in conservative states is more than a shopfloor battle. It's a cultural one. There needs to be a culture of resistance established so that people have the thought in their heads that they can collectively fight worker oppression.

I've also been organizing with Occupy Wichita. Not sure if any of y'all have hopped on that bandwagon, but the efforts being made there have been fruitful for Wichita, so I've layed off of the IWW organizing to some degree. I'm still kind of the "contact" guy, but I only have so much time. As of right now I use the IWW as an educational body, mostly. If I'm hired into a workplace, I'll be right back at it. (Oh, I was fired from Dillons for insubordination, attempting to use Sec. 7 in a creative way to throw away food in protest, but the lawyer thought that while I may have a case for concerted activity, that that activity would most likely be voted down as "protected". Just fyi. Live and learn, right?)

While this doesn't relate as much to feminism in the worker movement, it is a bit of news from one of the fronts in a conservative state. Thought I'd try to keep people up to date on activities like that. I feel much more prepared from the experience, and know that I'd spend more time building the social network prior to acting on my own. However, I'm uncertain -- in Kansas -- how that would be possible without a culture of resistance, and that is something I'm working on building through Occupy.

Hope things are well with others in their organizing efforts.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Living feminism

What is vital about feminism can be understood best in the lived relation between oneself and women. Feminism as a preconception -- yours or somebody else's -- needn't enter into the equation. Sometimes it can be helpful; other times it has to be overcome in order to really hear the concerns of women in our lives, which may or may not conform to feminism with a capital "F."
The same holds true for working class politics: it's important to have relationships with working class people. In my own experience, the attitudes and preoccupations of working class people can depart significantly from what I believe to be sound "working class politics,” even if their basic requirements do not (everyone needs a minimum level of health and self-possession to thrive as individuals).  
For example, among my own coworkers, there are those who ingratiate themselves with the boss because they think this affords them security; those whose work ethic makes them favored employees; some who do as little as possible and only “look out for themselves”; and yet others who take hostile stands against the boss in self-defeating ways, making of themselves a target while they gripe about the injustice-du-jour.
In a lived work environment it is rarely enough to merely identify, on an intellectual level, what is lacking in other people’s behavior. The office or shop gossip can sometimes be a fine source of information, or possess an accurate view of what’s wrong; but the gossip does nothing to change what is deemed objectionable, and instead thrives on the act of judgment. But the organizer’s task isn’t pointing out what’s wrong and expecting everyone to change their behavior just because the diagnosis is right. I’m more inclined to see the organizer’s role as identifying what needs to be changed in the organizer’s own behavior when confronted with a particular set of circumstances -- including, for example, workers of the sort described above -- in order to engage problems in a constructive way when more often than not they haven’t been engaged at all -- only bitched about. Too often it is intellectuals who talk and diagnose, often correctly, without stepping up to the organizer’s role.  
The same holds true in our political engagement with women. How individual women respond to the lived experience of patriarchy can lead to all kinds of different outcomes. I know women for whom feminism is a straightforward necessity; others who pursue the substance of feminism without walking under its banner; principled women who are ambivalent toward or uninterested in formal politics; and of course women who are either hostile toward feminism or defer to the men in their lives for security -- not unlike the worker obsequious before the boss. 
Once again, in our lived experience with women, we are confronted with how to engage particular situations and specific individuals. Even individuals who practice a politics adversarial to our own can at the same time be victims of patriarchy. Any feminism which includes consideration for all women would enjoin us to shun no one, even if we reject their present point of view. 
A commitment to feminist and working class politics, in practice, will inevitably mean making oneself available to individuals whose views we may reject. Ultimately it means listening to the person in front of you, whoever they are, and thinking about what they are telling you with the advantage of a political education and awareness -- and with an aim toward doing something about it. Expecting that they will change their tune because we made a better argument is folly, through and through; I often see this frustrate activists into a dead end. People modify their behavior when they are persuaded from the standpoint where they already are, not the place where we admonish them to be; this implies that we do best to understand where they are coming from.   
If we are feminists then, simply speaking, we care about where women are coming from -- i.e. not strictly “feminist” women, however this is conceived. Speaking personally, this is for me where things get most challenging and most urgent; for example, getting away from radical purity tests and simply listening to someone like my elderly aunt who over the holidays distinguished herself by describing urban life as compromised by “all the blacks on their drugs.” It struck me as a responsibility that fell right into my lap, though how to approach it constructively vis-a-vis a woman whose information is FOX News for most of her waking hours -- a woman who despite her racism is also someone I love -- is much more the sort of question which occupies my thoughts these days.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Explaining feminism

Work friends ask about my being a "hardcore feminist." It is easy to explain: Feminism means you acknowledge that injustice happens against women because they are women; you think injustice is wrong and want to position yourself in opposition to it.

Always remember your audience. If they are working class men, you have to account for this. People in blue collar settings don't use the same concepts or vocabulary that you're going to find in a graduate seminar. In my experience, it's best to start with other's concerns, not your own. If they are primarily concerned with getting laid, you may have some work to do before you get around to the idea of justice for women.

The fortunate thing about working with people is that you see them everyday. You don't have to resolve everything in a single conversation -- or, put differently, a single confrontation. Many activists are too quick to condemn anyone who doesn't see things their way. But if feminism stands in acknowledgment of the injustice women face, activism should stand in acknowledgment of the ignorance that stems naturally from the status quo. Rather than be surprised by it in every instance, we'd do better to be prepared.

In an important sense, you have to love other people enough to listen to them, especially when much of what they say is ugly or hateful. I'm speaking in this case of activists in the same category of power as those they interact with; in other words, as a man I have to have a measure of patience with other working class men I can't stand, at least if my long term goal is to persuade. They won't listen to women, but it's possible they will listen to another man. You always want to be pushing the possibilities in this regard, but it isn't easy; a strong sense of class consciousness helps, as well as concern for the women these men inevitably interact with.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Interview with Maria

JRB: Why is your participation in the IWW significant to you?

M: I am involved in the IWW because I firmly believe in it. In my opinion, it is the only labor union in North America to acknowledge that the disparities between workers and bosses are directly caused by capitalism; and it's the only union that fights for workers' rights by fighting against capitalism. I am not one who can easily ignore social injustices, and in contemporary society, capitalism is the root of these injustices. The most logical way to fight back against this system is to collectively seize the means of production. I am only involved in activities that I believe in -- and that is the underlying reason I remain involved in the IWW, despite the many setbacks.

JRB: What are the most immediate obstacles we face in building a movement aimed at appropriating the means of production in the US?

M: The most immediate obstacles we face in building this movement are fear and a lack of true solidarity. The fear that I’m referring to is a fear of retaliation from the boss -- and we experience this every moment in the workplace. I think in order to overcome that fear, we need to stand together and develop trust amongst each other so that each of our fellow workers can feel protected morally, financially, and legally, as needed. It seems that in too many segments of the radical labor movement, people are guided by their egos rather than a sense of equality amongst their co-workers and co-organizers. Sometimes this causes participants to feel alienated because they aren’t equally included in the work. Other times, movements fall apart because of serious internal issues, such as racism and sexism, which are brushed aside or ignored entirely. These issues tend to snowball because those complicit in the discrimination will make every excuse in the book to not directly address the problem. Solidarity and trust amongst the group's members is therefore lost before coordinated action can even begin.

JRB: As a woman, have you or others you know had your solidarity and trust challenged by internal issues, such as sexism?

M: Nearly every woman I have spoken to since I joined the union has had to compromise or sacrifice their involvement due to issues of sexism. For me, these issues caused a serious strain on my emotional health, and I had to sacrifice friendships and trust amongst fellow workers whom I had known for years. The problem stemmed from a situation in which one member verbally harassed me using highly sexist language. When I called him out on it other union members immediately questioned my credibility and defended him, even though the evidence was quite clear that my accusations were true. A sort of groupthink mentality took hold, and those who scrutinized me claimed that I had ulterior motives in making such accusations. This emboldened the individual who harassed me to continue his behavior, responding to my accusation with another verbal attack over a public list serve. Faced with a group of bullies and a harrowing charges process, the problems snowballed. What came about was months of further internet bullying, verbal harassment and continued public scrutiny. I had to regularly put out statements to both those who supported me and those who scrutinized me, explaining over and over again what had happened and why this person needed to be held accountable for his actions. All in all, the situation was never fully resolved; the person who harassed me was never fully held accountable for his actions, and those who scrutinized me continue to feel justified in doing so.

Unfortunately, I was not the first person in the union who has had to endure an experience like this. At least five other women whom I have known personally, and who were active in the IWW for years, left the union because of similar experiences with sexism. Four of these individuals were physically or verbally harassed by other Wobblies, and one of them spent years organizing, only to receive very little support or recognition for the work she did. These were all very passionate Wobblies who spent years in the IWW, but when they spoke up, their claims of sexism and harassment were brushed aside or ignored entirely.

What I and other women Wobblies went through were not isolated incidents. They were symptomatic of a larger problem that the male-dominated culture simply failed to address, therefore enabling similar incidents to occur in the future.

JRB: Your experience makes me wonder whether men interpret accusations of sexism differently than women. Activist men seem to interpret it as an attack on their character, a way to discredit them, whereas activist women, seeing sexism as something that men will naturally struggle with under patriarchy, expect men to actualize their principles with regard to specific behavior. Men who feel their character is under attack will respond in kind: they try to discredit whoever is asking them to think about their behavior, because they don't understand the request. They don't understand how you can be both honorable and accused of sexism at the same time, so they deny the sexism charge in order to preserve their honor. From their view, it is a war between reputations, rather than an opportunity for feminist struggle.

The type of character attacks you describe suggest to me that, as men, we don't know what to do when we are accused of sexist behavior except to insist that we aren't sexist. We don't see sexism as something that has to be struggled with on a personal level, but simply as something we don’t do. This leaves us no room to maneuver when someone suggests that we are.

M: I think your interpretation is very interesting, and one that I have heard snippets of here and there from male allies who have tried to come to terms with their own sexist behavior. I certainly can't speak for all women, but I think it is generally true that we expect men, and activist men in particular, to actualize their principles instead of defending their own egos. All too often it seems that men claim to believe in anti-sexist principles -- which I'm sure they really do -- but when it comes to practice they do not act on anti-sexist principles. When someone is accused of sexist behavior, he tends to over-compensate with pro-feminist language, yet he rarely acts to address that behavior.

In my experience, the individual who harassed me went so far as to essentially drive himself out of the union altogether because he acted in defense of his ego and refused to address his misogynistic behavior. If he had gone through a simple process of taking some time away from the union and attending anti-sexism workshops and sensitivity trainings, he would have had a lot of support from people within the union, and he could have improved over time.

I think one of the most practical ways of addressing this complex issue is for men to form men's groups to improve their own awareness and sensitivity around these issues. Men tend to react defensively when women tell them they have to attend a workshop, or when women preach to them about how they are sexist and what they should do to improve; but if men developed their own "safe space," out of their own will, I think the reactive ego would be stripped away and they could really begin to focus on critically looking inward and developing small steps they could take to improve themselves and the culture around them. The only way this can happen is if the men are sincerely motivated to face a challenging process to overcome patriarchy. It is a lot of hard work, but it is necessary if we're ever going to move forward in rooting out all forms of oppression.

JRB: How did you find the strength continue the work that you do at times when you felt abandoned by your allies?

M: I found the strength to continue my involvement in the IWW from the trusted friends who stuck by my side through thick and thin. While my close allies and I certainly did not agree on all aspects of my approach in dealing with the continued scrutiny and harassment, they continued to support me because they knew it was a very difficult time for me and they knew I would do the same for them. They did not allow themselves to be bullied into abandoning me because they trusted my word as a victim of harassment, who did not stand to gain anything by making baseless accusations; as a woman who has to deal with sexism just about everywhere I go in life; and as a fellow worker who has stood with them on the picket line and in the streets. That is solidarity in its true form, and our movement needs more of it.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Speaking from experience

I'm not an expert on popular culture so maybe you can help me out here. There is a recent film -- maybe a Seth Rogen title, maybe not; but something in that vein -- which opens with a young woman asking for help in a guitar store. What she gets isn't so much the help she requested, but rather a demonstration of the advanced guitar knowledge of the two male employees assisting her. The woman isn't really interested, but that doesn't matter: the two men are either convinced that she is or that she should be, so they proceed to compete with each other over who, in effect, can be the most irrelevant to her concerns. Engaged by neither, she departs just as soon as her routine request is fulfilled.

This pattern of behavior is as common in activist circles as it is in guitar stores or other workplaces: men assume an expert position vis-a-vis women and proceed to "impress" them as they believe women should be impressed. Sometimes this works, but most of the time it just alienates the intended audience -- so they leave. Within activist organizations as I have experienced them, lots of women are leaving, all the time, if not because of scenarios as specific as this, then because their concerns are not being acknowledged in a more general way.

I've thought a lot about how assuming an "expert" role has impacted my own relationships, particularly with women. What I notice amongst my healthiest relationships is that while I am sometimes asked for an opinion on one topic or another because of my background or interests, most of the time I'm not occupying any expert-type position at all, but am instead engaged in a dialogue where expert roles are being exchanged depending on the context. This seems to be the norm amongst family and friends, for example.

One of the great advantages of talking about feminism as a man is that it puts you in a position where you can't be an expert on many things. I think for men this is an important experience to have, since we've been socialized to believe that our self-worth comes from occupying a greater position of certainty than the next guy. For feminism to work best, men should feel comfortable not having all the answers or even feeling like they need to have any particularly good ideas. We should be very interested in listening to others, in order to formulate what could become a good idea. But we can't know what we need to know without first acknowledging the concerns of the women around us.

I have to believe that the dearth of male-initiated feminism within activist circles relates to this expectation on the part of men to feel like they need to be experts before they can speak with confidence on these subjects. And yet they will never be able to approach this standard as compared with women. Subsequently, it's not something men pursue in an open, active way.

But you don't have to be an expert on feminism to care about injustice as women experience it. Practicing feminism as a man doesn't mean speaking for women, but speaking for yourself about your relations with women. We all have relationships with women which are informed by political considerations, so why not talk about them? We are all experts when it comes to our own experiences.

Being an expert on everything is rarely all it's cracked up to be. In many ways it's just a lot easier to admit we don't have all the answers, namely because it's true! Why try to bear some impossible burden, when the work can be shared? A public endorsement of not knowing can be very reassuring to others who feel the same way.

Ideally, we should want to offer leadership in places where our skills are useful, but the flip side should be encouraging others to do the same. Feminist practice for men may even mean taking feminist rhetoric down a notch, or refraining from "taking action" on everything without first thinking about how this impacts the group. I think this is something I am struggling with at present.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The shell of the old

Katie comments:

[M]y reasons for being politically engaged in a different way than many politically engaged men include:

-Finding "male egos" in activist groups tiresome. I think this relates to the way men are socialized to have their personal worth conflated with roles like leader or expert. These are things related to the emotional aspects of gender roles. I've seen dudes repeatedly have this emotional need to have social status in the group. I just find it an uninteresting and time consuming distraction from the work at hand, when anyone of any gender brings their ego needs to an activist project.

-Another turn off for me has been that males in a group or in political circles will actually not include me in conversation unless they find me sexually attractive. It's the "be desired or be invisible" thing.

-Things I'm turned off about when it comes to left wing political subcultures in general which are perpetuated by both women and men are: rigid, inflexible thinking, an uncomfortable emphasis on political purity, judgmental attitudes towards ourselves and others on degree of purity. That has been my experience over 15 years of association with left/progressive/activist realms.

All of these kinds of things are reasons why I now participate only very selectively. These things have just not made it very appealing to be involved.

Katie is a good example of someone who shares the values of IWW-style organization (i.e. non-hierarchical direct action) but nevertheless finds herself estranged from initiatives of this sort.

This is significant because lots of people likely share these values and would jump at the chance to pursue them in a constructive way. But more often than not, the obstacle to lasting involvement in such organizations is an internal culture which does not adequately anticipate the needs of its members, who aspire to something positive when so much of their lives is spent navigating the negative.

In my experience, it is too often the case that progressive political organization is in fact much more negative than even the sort of nonsense I have to tolerate on the job. At least on the job there is some coherent structure of expectation: I know how to avoid drama if I want to. But bring a group of people together on a voluntary basis around purportedly social objectives, and it seems there is no limit to the ignominy one party will resort to in asserting its dominance over another!*

Working class organization could benefit by administering to itself a simple working class test: After a long day at work, do people want to invest what limited time they have in our organization? Or do they purposefully stay away?

*Notably true when it is done in the name of non-domination.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Membership has its privileges

Since my last post I've been thinking a lot about political guys and socially engaged gals, and now I think I'd like to turn the focus on myself as one of these political types of guys. I can speak as someone whose political development has happened in large part because I was able to single-mindedly focus on one thing over a long period of time. When I look at other guys like me, there's a similar sort of pattern. We've managed to specialize in one particular area very well -- like theory, for example -- and having done that, we want to remain in that space because that's where we feel in control. Everything outside of this space is suspect; for radicals, it's too commercial or too low-brow or whatever. So you end up insisting that everyone should arrive where you already are -- and insofar as they don't, or won't, they're dumb.

What's funny is that I see this pattern replicated in all kinds of cultural activity between men and women, where the men have invested huge amounts of time in trying to excel at one thing, in order to ensure that they can be seen as the best or the go-to guy or at the very least not be questioned in whatever it is they do. It literally doesn't matter what the activity is. It can be yoga or cooking: rest assured, there will be some dude who spends the bulk of his time trying to be just as good as he humanly can at one thing, while spending the rest of his time working to ensure that he only does that one thing around other people. Think about how this plays itself out in the business world, for example.

What immediately separates women from men in this regard, however, isn't that women can't be just as good in any particular capacity, but that women by and large don't spend the bulk of their time invested only in one thing. The reality of women's lives is that they don't have the same luxury to do this. In fact, when I reflect on my own life, it is precisely the fact that women were constantly taking care of lots of things around me that I was able to focus so singularly on what I liked to do. This kills me about gender -- how many times guys get really good at something because women are fielding everything else. Totally random examples: I'm reading a biography about Sophia Tolstoy, and it's all the same; if you watch the documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop, about street artists, it's the same once more.*

Let me reinforce the fact that I am totally this kind of guy, and the more I understand about it, the more it makes my skin crawl. Not because I'm a bad person or because I haven't done useful things with whatever talent I have -- and that's important. Guys who focus narrowly in particular areas frequently have lots to give that everyone can appreciate and celebrate. The problem for me comes when someone like my partner, who works more than full-time, hears what I, someone who only works part-time, have to say about some current affair, only to declare that I'm "so smart" because she had no idea what was even going on. There's a reason for that, and it has zero to do with intelligence, but a lot to do with privilege.

* Yet another documentary where only men go to extreme lengths at the expense, if also with the admiration, of their families can be found by the title Kings of Pastry.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Demonstrating the relevance of ideas

When I think about the formal political organizations I've been involved in on one hand, and the overwhelming majority of socially aware women in my life on the other, the two just don't fit together very well. The women I know are active doing interesting and constructive things, if not expressly political; while many of the very intelligent "political" types I know are men with whom one can have a very interesting discussion just so long as you both hold the same views in the first place.

Between the two, the political type is always engaged on some level with the broader culture, whether in their "political" capacity they ever bother to admit this (for instance, as an online persona): they participate in mainstream life whether they like it or not; but the women I know don't participate in formal political activity, or eventually move away from it, because they simply don't like it. Why they don't like it has nothing to do with any lack of social awareness on their part, but instead reflects an honest appraisal of their options and a judgment in favor of the kinds of activities that are most fulfilling to them. By and large I have found that the tendency does not draw them toward hanging out with overtly political dudes -- again, my experience -- and the organizations they populate.

And all of this is very healthy I think, because insofar as such organizations fail to demonstrate their relevancy to, say, working class women, why should they deserve to grow? The kinds of social activity that are most meaningful to people, or best meet their needs under the circumstances, are the ones that people are excited to be a part of. If the "one big union" is as relevant an idea today as I believe it has always been throughout the history of industrial capitalism, then surely there is a way of articulating its relevance to women (and other underrepresented workers) in their daily lives. It seems evident to me that we haven't quite hit on this yet in the context of a highly-saturated consumer culture, where commercial distractions can be counted on to obliterate whatever excitement might be found in the lessons of early 20th-century labor struggle. In my view, this is a place to come to, but not the right place to begin, depending on the audiences we want to reach.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Talking about feminism

It's important for men to talk openly about their relationships with women. That's always going to be the most important part of a project like this one -- just getting men to talk. By and large, this doesn't happen; so I think we have to look at it as a goal in itself, since little else can happen without it.

To some extent this means being flexible enough in focus to accommodate what men honestly want to say when reflecting on their relationships with women. For many men, trying to articulate themselves along feminist lines is daunting enough, without the added expectation of being fluent in considerations of class. So the emphasis for me is on making working class men comfortable in their pursuit of feminism -- in other words, class and feminism coming together in practice, if not immediately in theory.

As I reflect on my own role, I'm a little disappointed I haven't pursued this thinking more aggressively, because I think it's prevented me from saying very much around here lately. And that sucks! So I'm going to try to put more of the raw material from my own life out here, without worrying so much about where it falls or whether it will do any good. I think an inevitable part of being a "feminist man in solidarity with women" is that a lot of the time you aren't going to know this in advance; though this mustn't stop you from trying.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Interview with CDW

Guest contributor C.D.W. recently left her local branch of the IWW, she wants to stress, for several different reasons; she agrees to speak about one of them here. -- JRB

JRB: What first attracted you to the IWW?

CDW: I had been politically active for years before joining the IWW. I began to feel a sense of disillusionment stemming from Leninist forms of organizing. The Leninist party [model], in my opinion, was not honoring Marxism. I felt a disconnect between the workers and the “party.” My libertarian tendencies had me searching for groups that were less bureaucratic and more “worker” oriented. The IWW takes a nonhierarchical approach to organizing. The IWW does not consider itself separate, or better than workers -- they are the workers! The practice of direct action was also appealing. The IWW did not concern itself with selling newspapers or recruiting party members; it enmeshes itself in workers' struggles. The IWW has a rich history in the labor movement, and its philosophy of inclusiveness was among the first of its kind —- how could one not be attracted to the IWW?

JRB: Did you initially feel that this inclusiveness was extended to women workers?

CDW: I would be lying if I said no. I would never join an organization that is so obviously exclusive. I think most radical organizations have enough awareness about structural issues that they are not overtly discriminatory; most of these groups attempt to mask the inequities within. Power dynamics take time to surface, and are not always easy to identify. Although the composition of the IWW is telling. Women make up only a small fraction of its members. The organization needs to question why it’s not recruiting and/or retaining female members. While I was a member of my local branch, there were only two females. There was a third woman who left prior to my arrival. Although I do not know much about why she left, I know there were allegations of sexism.

JRB: Regarding recruitment and retention, I've often thought along similar lines: What are we doing wrong? Can you think of anything in the culture of the IWW, as you experienced it, that might have been alienating or off-putting for women?

CDW: I'll preface this answer by saying that I do not make any attempt to be a spokesperson for all women in the IWW. Albeit, my experiences in the IWW are not isolated cases within the movement, and may be emblematic of more systemic issues. I will speak more generally and will not use identifiable information -- as to not distract from the more salient issues of patriarchy.

First and foremost, women are vastly underrepresented in the IWW. Women's issues are seldom addressed and tactics to recruit women are almost never employed. The last National Conference was a huge success, and I value my experience and the people I met. However, I do have some complaints. I want to say this carefully, as to not devalue the input and participation of the two or three female speakers. The women who participated on a panel spoke about their “experiences,” whereas male comrades educated participants on theory and the historical struggles of the working class. I make this comparison because higher levels of prestige are associated with more academic types of presentations. During the planning stages of the conference, I expressed interest in leading a workshop on the theoretical basis for organizing in a post-industrial society. My suggestion was shrugged off and no one bothered to get back to me.

Female comrades sometimes fail to receive recognition for their organizing skills and strategic planning. I witnessed a male comrade receiving congratulatory remarks on a project that I worked on diligently. Needless to say, my involvement was not acknowledged.

Sexist attitudes and behaviors of male comrades are often dismissed as non-problematic or are labeled a “miscommunication.” Unfortunately, instead of providing a safe space to express grievances, women have frequently experienced hostility and alienation as a result of speaking up. I want to add that I do not think these incidences are indicative of any particular negative culture within the IWW, but more the remnants of patriarchy found within broader society.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Solidarity Against Sexism On The Shop Floor

This article originally appeared in the March edition of the Industrial Worker. It does a great job answering many questions relating to sexual harassment, so I wanted to post it here. -- JRB

By Angel Gardner

If there is anything that I have learned from working in the restaurant and retail industry for over 14 years, it is that sexual harassment and sexism in the workplace is an issue that has not gone away. Perhaps you have become more tolerant of being sexually objectified. Maybe you are afraid that being uncomfortable with sexual advances or comments means that you are a prude or hopelessly outdated. The reality is that sexual harassment and sexism are all about power. We feel uncomfortable about standing up for ourselves in these situations because to do so questions power relations; not only in the workplace, but in society in general.

Is it sexual harassment or sexism in the workplace?

• A district manager asks you and your 40-year old female coworker, “Will you girls make us some coffee for our meeting?”

• Your manager makes all the women in the workplace wear tight baby doll t-shirts
which are intentionally a size too small that say, “For a Good Time Call ...” while the men are told to wear plain black polo shirts that do not have to be form-fitting.

• During your training at a retail clothing store, you are told to flirt with potential customers to make sales. You feel uncomfortable with this and despite your efforts to be proactive about sales in a professional way, you are pulled aside later for not being “friendly enough.”

• A conventionally-attractive regular customer often sits at the bar and stares at you throughout your shift and has made several comments about your appearance that make you uncomfortable. When you tell him to stop, he says that you should be flattered. Your boss fails to act and your other coworkers, who appreciate his attention, tell you that you are strange for not liking it.

The answer: If any of these policies, attitudes or behavior makes you feel uncomfortable, then you should not have to deal with it. Everyone’s comfort level is different. Some of your coworkers might not mind being called “girl” or “sweetie,” while others may take offense to being referred to as a “woman” or by any gender-specific pronoun. Different expectations for employee uniforms that force coworkers into stereotyped gender roles are sexist practices that create a potentially hostile workplace. Flirting with customers should never be a given, but a choice. Some people may find that they like the attention and get better tips by flaunting their appearance and flirting, but not everyone should have to interact in a similar fashion. Berating others for what makes them uncomfortable promotes an environment of harassment.

So you feel like a policy or an individual at work is creating a hostile work environment? Going the legal route is not always the best or solitary option. Collectively standing up together with your coworkers against sexist practices, policies or individuals can often be the safest and most powerful way to fight. Though it is technically illegal, it is easier for companies to retaliate against an individual than a group of workers. In addition, sexual harassment cases often result in companies dragging women through the mud and can prove to be very traumatic for the victim. Legal processes can take a long time to resolve, but taking direct action in your workplace is immediate. When workers come together to fight sexual harassment and sexism, we are empowered by taking back the workplace and at the same time, form closer bonds with our coworkers by building mutual trust and respect for one another.

How do I fight sexism and harassment in my workplace?

• Form a coalition with coworkers who share and/or are sympathetic to your concerns. Sexual harassment affects union and non-union members alike, so do not exclude any possible allies.

• Ban customers and clients who are repeat offenders from the store and make sure that the ban is being enforced by the rest of your coworkers.

• Confront your boss as a group about sexual harassment issues (perhaps even a definition) and make it known that you take it very seriously and so should they.

• Confront workers who refuse to support their fellow workers when they feel harassed, violated, or uncomfortable. Have one-on-one conversations about the impact of their actions (not respecting boundaries) and words (“it's not a big deal”), and express your feelings in a genuine, but professional manner.

• Any policy, dress code, or expectations that fellow workers find to be sexist should be addressed, regardless of whether or not you’ve reached consensus. If you are required by your job to wear a tight baby doll t-shirt, but men can wear polos, you should also be able to wear polo, if you do not want to wear the t-shirt.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

What feminism means for me

In practical terms, what feminism means for me is meeting people where they are and encouraging them in a direction that fulfills the aspirations of every individual. I'm not sure why feminism has this universal aspect for me; probably because women are overrepresented in the lower tiers of so many social hierarchies: in practice, you can't help but change communities by changing the roles of women. And from my perspective as a man, I can't help but gain from this in my relationships with both women and other men.

I have a hard time understanding arguments that suggest otherwise, as though I benefit by being estranged from the people I love. Yes, I benefit in many ways; but it's kind of like the boss who is asked to give up his $100,000 salary if it means his kids can live in a pollution-free world: once we grasp the connection, we see what there is to gain. A lot of what patriarchy does is to prevent us, as men, from making that connection. A feminist strategy, directed at men, could make a very persuasive case, I think, but only by starting from their assumptions and working toward others they never thought possible. In negotiating these concerns amongst men, I believe male feminist activists will prove invaluable.

Friday, February 25, 2011

What is Required?

I'm heading to a protest tomorrow, and this is the text to the leaflet I typed out to bring and distribute.

What is Required?

People are born into a cold world. The uncertainty of life, regardless of one’s religious affiliation or leanings, must be acknowledged. “By the sweat of our brow”, say the workers, “we earn our daily bread and keep” But what does this metaphor mean, now? That I stock a shelf, another repairs vehicles, another waits a table, and so on. The bread comes from the store, where I stock, and was generated by the factory worker, and his material came from the farmer. The house I live in was built by a carpenter. The pipes put in place by a plumber. In short, the metaphor is no longer on bread, but “By the sweat of our brow” What is required is labor.

Required for what? The immediate answer is self reliance and survival. If one does not work in this world, then one will not enjoy the material benefits of it – including the material benefit of bread. Work also gives the benefit of providing for those we love, and earning a self respect. I know that I have value because I have earned that value through work. Though this answer is true, one may then reflect: if there was no stock man, factory worker, or mechanic, would I only be a carpenter? Surely I could construct my own house, and build useful tools, and so on, but would I have the required skill to grow wheat at a requisite level of proficiency? Even above the bare necessities, what of the other things I enjoy? Surely the world we live in is lived in because others work. So it follows that, what is required is not only my own work, but the work of others: And it is required for our society.

If labor is required for our society, then labor should have a say in our society. After all, it was built by labor, and therefore it follows that it justly belongs to labor. There is a catch: labor works in concert, not as isolated units. This is one of the reasons that wealth has been generated. And, even beyond this, if this society belongs to workers, they are often busy working. As such, they often do not have the time to proclaim: “I built this!” However unjust these realities are, they are realities and it is better to build a pragmatic solution than to cave. Then what else is required? Naturally, what we are assembled for today: Unions.

Unions, traditionally and into the future, form the base of labor politics – not Democrats. This is to show that even Democrats are vulnerable to labor politics, and a hope that this will become a reality in the future. Labor needs to be heard. Labor needs power. Not only does it need, but labor is only demanding it’s just earnings in demanding voice and power. What is required then is union power, and the legal blocking of unions from the political process will negate that.

On the back I have attached selections from the Kansas Constitution to highlight in what way this language is not radical, but historically justified. “No special privileges or immunities shall ever be granted by the legislature” – such as the privilege of the rich corporate sector in politics, which this bill would surely grant. “There shall be no slavery in this state” – which labor would be made into were it separated from the political process. “Emoluments or privileges prohibited” – such as the privilege of the rich to have the free time to engage the political engine? One gets a sense of what is required: “This enumeration of rights shall not be construed to impair or deny others retained by the people; and all powers not herein delegated remain with the people.” That power not enumerated is labor power – for economics is a politic.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Practicing a solidarity with women

How do working class men fulfill their responsibilities as feminists? At first glance, this question seems like an obvious one: as working class men, most of us interact with women on a daily basis. Moreover, as Wobblies we are not unfamiliar with the reality of women’s struggles. But how often is this “obvious” question raised?

Just as the industrial struggle requires coordinated action to achieve working class goals, so too does feminism require its own daily acts of solidarity. Working class men who understand the spirit and practice of solidarity in one realm already possess what they need to apply it in another. They only need the confidence and determination to begin.

More than any other, the concept of solidarity has provided the working class with an affirmative answer to the question of what we are fighting for: we support each other in the face of injustice, in order to create a more just and supportive world. In this sense, solidarity is both the “means to an end,” as well as the “end” in itself. We care about what happens to other people, because this always has implications for us too. Veterans of the class conflict know these truths all too well!

But we should also know that any working class that fails to practice solidarity between any of its constituent parts – like that between men and women – leaves itself that much further from its stated goals. We have to remember that building the new society in the shell of the old means establishing now the kinds of practices that we hope to develop more fully in the future. Feminism can help us address one problem area that is ever-present in our daily lives.

As working class men of the IWW, we know the appropriate response to a call for solidarity from others in the broader labor movement, especially when they are engaged in a workplace action. It isn’t something we usually need to deliberate over, fight about, or otherwise render ourselves “missing in action” because we don’t agree with the leadership or ideology of the affected group. The world and its circumstances may not conform to our preferences or expectations, but we know well enough to offer support when it is asked of us – and that is very much to our credit. Extending ourselves in solidarity to others when they are in need creates possibilities for dialogue that might not be available when we neglect to do so.

Working class men who want to establish genuine ties of solidarity to women’s struggles will have to emulate this “openness of spirit” when it is women who are asking for help and support, and to remain cognizant of the fact that many times support is welcome even if it isn’t explicitly asked for. The principle of solidarity remains the same: we give the affected individual or group the benefit of the doubt and offer support, even if the situation is complicated by other legitimate concerns.

One important way that we practice solidarity with other labor activists that should be replicated in our relations with women is, first and foremost, to listen to what they are telling us. Again, as Wobblies it would be very strange to approach another union with a different organizing model by second-guessing the claims it was making from a picket line. We know that it is inappropriate to make firm determinations about what somebody else is going through, in a situation that primarily affects them. But when it comes to our relations with women, the “boss” role that is given to men by patriarchy may lead us into a false sense of confidence of “knowing what is best” – for example, in a situation where an experience is shared by both men and women, but interpreted differently.

Our everyday interactions with women are no doubt complicated by the fact that, as working class men, we are often implicated in the same situations equally. Unlike in the case of a strike action undertaken by others, if a female activist has the courage to raise questions of sexism in her organization, it might be easy for the men to think, “Well, I was there too, and I don’t think sexism has anything to do with it.” Both may have firsthand experience to back up their perceptions, but in the case of the men, they may not be assuming general conditions of patriarchy as the woman does.

These aren’t easy or straightforward problems to address in practice, but working class men have a lot to contribute in moving us all in the right direction. One of the best approaches comes from our own tradition as Wobblies: by extending the practice of solidarity to all members of the working class. This necessarily includes women, and it is a development that is ready to be advanced, just as soon as we are ready to carry it forward.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Pro-Choice Unions - Pro-choice Allies

Thanks to FUG for posting "Kansas Politics and Blog for Choice Day". I'm here in Canada, and the anti-choice backlash isn't as strong as the continued push in the US of A. There are stealth anti-choice bills that regularly get sent to the parliment, but they have been as of now defeated. Also, what would be unthinkable in the USA, Henry Morgentaler, physician and prominent pro choice advocate who has fought numerous legal battles for that cause was recently awarded the the highest civilian order that can be awarded.

I would like to put some questions out there, without really having the answers, in the hopes of sparking some debate. I agree with FUG that strengthening an effective Pro-Choice Movement can be one avenue in developing a greater socialist-feminist-class consciousness. My questions are:

1) how can we as a workers union help develop a pro-choice practice and support?
2) How can we as men help develop a pro-choice practice and support?

I'm really not sure where to start, as these questions are fundamental to our place within a growing feminist, pro-choice movement.

In terms of question #2, I'd just like to share this piece from Feminist Allies blog. It speaks largely to our role as men and how abortion interacts with patriarchy:

As a male, I’ll never have an abortion. One of the privileges of
my sex is that I will never enter an abortion clinic as a patient.
However, according to Dr. Leroy Carhart, a friend and
associate of Dr. Tiller’s, “men have had unlimited availability to
‘abortion’ since the beginning of time. Men can walk away from
unwanted pregnancies with virtually no response from

Hope more folks will chime in and help with the answering of these questions.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Race/Sex/Gender Traitor: A Tool for Workplace Feminist Direct Action

I work in a masculine workplace environment; the meat department of a super market. All the butchers/Meat Cutters are middle aged/elderly men. Most of the traying/clean-up, and support staff are young men, and the counters wrappers/counters/frozen foods and Deli are women.

Working with meat, it can often lead to terrible sexual innuendos and "laddish" humor. "What kind of sausage do you like". Most time, it can roll off your back, sometimes not. Complaints to management don't end up anywhere, only "we'll talk to him, but this is a meat department, it is how it is".

One elderly (76) can take the jokes to far and often goes into harassment. What were once "laddish" jokes become attacks on gays, women, and other minorities. And unfortunately, for a time they were directed at me (with implications of how I was gay and how it was wrong or a problem to the workplace).

So, I took the question to our IWW branch: what to do when you're under attack? A FW brought up the idea he read in the magazine Race Traitor: deny your whiteness, be a traitor to your straightness.

The next time he tried to make jokes about gayness at my expense, I told him "But I am gay, whats the problem?" His face was went red, "but... you have a wife?!" I said "doesn't not make me gay".

He shut up. Hasn't made those awful jokes since. I know he hasn't changed his mind, and I don't expect him to (a co-worker once told me how he warned her that if gay marriage is accepted, "gays will break into your home and steal" her new-born son.) Still, within the workplace it allowed the worst excesses of a common masculinist workplace culture to be tempered.

As I see it, it was an important, individual direct action, an attempt to deny my own privilege as a white-straight-male and declare my solidarity with the struggles for equality. But such individual actions will never change the dominate paradigm in our workplaces. Only though true organization (not UFCW business unionism), solidarity on the ground and radical eduction/culture, can such changes have a real and lasting effect.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Kansas Politics and Blog for Choice Day

What Blog for Choice Day is: On January 21st (I'm barely getting in on time) this website asked bloggers everywhere to answer the following question:

Given the anti-choice gains in the states and Congress, are you concerned about choice in 2011?

News on what the new leadership in Kansas is doing: link

With news like this, how can I not be concerned about the future of pro-choice legislation?

Now, this may not seem, on its face, to be the most all-inclusive answer, since I'm discussing local politics. But if you read the link, you'll see that Kansas is trying to play the same card that California tried to play with gay marriage, only they're trying to repeal Roe v. Wade. And, since Sebelius left office, Kansas has turned RED. Kansas City had usually maintained a blue outline, but the Tea Party movement, in conjunction with other factors I'm sure, have turned the state deeply conservative.

Now, what does this have to do with feminism and labor? Pro-choice is the only sensible stance as a political feminist, because anything that restricts choice creates a power differential between men and women, thereby reinforcing the patriarchy. The moral choice is only such a choice when it is a choice. The political stance, as a feminist, must be directed towards equalizing power relations between the genders.

As such I think it behooves the labor movement to vocally stand up for reproductive rights. This is a power issue which can help to build a left movement for an actual socialist state, as opposed to a Democratic bourgeois state -- the current standard for leftists in the states. If a labor-based left movement wants power, then the left is going to have to embrace other issues of importance to the left. Abortion rights go hand in hand with labor feminist politics.

Sexuality, women, and work

At work there is a cork board meant for union business that has become the permanent residence of a dozen or so entertainment section cut-out "hotties" -- or "bitches" as my colleagues describe them in a sincere tone of reverence and admiration.

I've been careful to gauge the response of the larger work group, which ranges from appreciation to ambivalence in the case of the men, and perplexity with regards to the women.

"Why are they so interested in imaginary women? They won't know what to do with a real woman. I don't see the point," was the verdict of one woman in particular.

I thought it was an interesting reaction, because the sentiment didn't deny the importance of sexuality between men and women, even in the context of work; it just wanted it to exist between real people.

This got me thinking about why men are so easily drawn away from what is, or could be, real between themselves and women; and why they show this preference for fantasies they could never achieve. It's almost as if they don't believe they could ever have, or don't deserve, an intimacy with women that comes close to whatever ideas they have about women in their heads. Or maybe it just has to do with controlling the terms unilaterally.

This is something I've been thinking about a lot lately, since I have an advantage in having experienced this myself throughout life: I have known the appeal of content produced by men about women; all the many varieties of pornography -- both as a product and as a way to sell products.

Once I started writing seriously about feminism I feel like something in my brain changed in how I relate to such content, maybe because I finally understood it. Or maybe I am just older, and less prone to trifling sexual distractions (in which case I cannot take too much credit!). Whatever the case, it's very hard for me to look at commercial advertising or pornography and not be awake to the fact that, in all likelihood, some very unappealing dudes are writing the script.

Between these dudes and the women in my life, who even as workplace acquaintances are saying "I'm real: If you're so interested in women, why don't you try talking to one?" the choice is straightforward.

One of the complicating factors, however, is that when straight sexuality is almost exclusively narrated by unappealing dudes, as a guy you can become hyper-suspicious of your sexuality altogether. That's no fun, either; certainly not for your partner, at least. This is another area where I think, as a guy, you have to step back from making unilateral judgments about what is or isn't appropriate, and acclimate yourself to making choices in concert with the people you care about.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011


Guest contributor C.D.W. hits on some themes that have resonated with me since I joined the Industrial Workers of the World. Chief among these is the idea that an organization like the IWW should bring with it a different way of relating to one another than what you're going to get everywhere else. We are building the new society in the shell of the old, remember! Sadly, I haven't seen a lot of that; and some of what I've seen is actually worse than what I put up with on a daily basis at work. Surely we can't expect that people will be drawn to our organizations if what they offer is worse than what we are fighting against!

Women should feel like the IWW is a place where who they are and what they can do is celebrated and affirmed. If male-identified Wobs could commit themselves to even one female member of their branch who they aren't romantically invested in and ask themselves "What does this person require for the IWW to remain relevant for them?" that might be a big first step.