Tuesday, September 28, 2010

When is workplace organizing a feminist activity?

I'm going to talk about workplace organizing as a tool to oppose sexism and racism. (I'm going to sometimes just say "organizing" in the rest of this, but I mean specifically workplace organizing). Before I get to that, I want to say this clearly first: workplace organizing is not the answer to sexism and racism - or, if you prefer, to male dominance and white supremacy. That is, organizing does not always undermine racism and sexism. <--more-->

Some organizing may have no effect, at least no visible effect, on sexism or racism at all. This does not mean this organizing is not valuable, but we should be clear about what it does and does not accomplish. In some cases, organizing could very well prop up sexism and/or racism. The same goes for other forms of discrimination. This has happened in the past.

Not only is organizing not always a feminist and anti-racist activity, some aspects of sexism and racism are not likely to be solved by workplace organizing. Sexism and racism don't just exist on the job or due to our jobs, so workplace organizing alone is not going to end sexism or racism. For the foreseeable future, workplace organizing alone is not going to end sexual assault, domestic violence, discrimination in housing, police harassment, incarceration, or many other ills.

If workplace organizing alone is not the answer to sexism and racism, does this mean that workplace organizing is not useful at all for challenging sexism and racism? I don't think so. It seems to me that just as organizing can sometimes prop up sexism and racism, it can
also sometimes undermine them. That's what I want to address here: when is workplace organizing a feminist and an anti-racist practice?

What Makes Organizing Feminist?

The answer depends on where we're organizing. Organizing is a feminist and an anti-racist practice when it means women and people of color coming together to have more control over their lives and to have more collective power. If a group of women of color fix some issues they
face, that's a small victory against sexism and racism, whether it's workplace organizing or tenant organizing or organizing the unemployed or organizing welfare recipients. So, workplace organizing is a feminist and an anti-racist practice when women and people of color organize around issue they have on the job.

I know some people have doubts about workplace organizing as a feminist and anti-racist activity. These doubts may come from the bad parts of the history of workplace organizing and problems in organizations that do workplace organizing. It's very reasonable to react badly to all of that, but the baby of organizing should not be thrown out with the bath-water of organizing put to bad use.

Doubts about workplace organizing may also come in response to a reductive definition of what we organize around, like so-called "bread and butter" issues such as wages and benefits. People who push for more workplace organizing, can sometimes sound like all people care about is bread, when we all know people want both bread and roses. Some workplace issues are not economic in the narrow "bread and butter" sense.


One of my first organizing experiences was with janitors at a hospital. The janitors were all African Americans or immigrant Latinos and many of them were women. One of the key people among the janitors was a women I'll call Mabel. Mabel worked full time night shift. Mable's main reason for being part of the organizing drive was that she wanted more control over scheduling. She had repeatedly asked management to put her on day shift. There were other workers on day shift who wanted to work nights because the night shift got paid a bit more.

Mabel wanted to work days so she could be at home with her five children when they were not at school. She was a single mother who relied a lot on her older two children to help with the younger children. Mabel was particularly concerned because there had been a lot of shootings and gang activity close to her house. She was afraid that her thirteen year old son would get mixed up in gang activity or would get hurt if he was unsupervised five nights a week.

Mabel's demand to work days is not a narrowly "bread and butter" economic issue. In the short term, Mabel was willing to take a small pay cut in order to work days, because she was willing to give up the shift premium she got for working nights. Mabel's issue, like all or almost all workplace issues, boiled down to who had power. Power on the job is not only about "bread and butter."

Doubts about organizing may also come from a sense that oppression is not just a workplace issue, that some pieces of oppression can't be fixed on the job. Some of the doubts or hesitation about workplace organizing may come from a feeling that people who push for more workplace organizing don't care about oppression outside of work. These are important concerns but this doesn't mean that oppression can't be fought in the workplace at all.

Benefits to Women

I think that workplace organizing is a key piece of opposing sexism and racism. Like I said before, not all power is about "bread and butter." On the other hand, "bread and butter" issues are crucial parts of sexism and racism. Women and people of color generally make less money in their jobs. A 2008 report by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, entitled "Unions and Upward Mobility for Women Workers" found that women in union jobs earn about 11% more and are more likely to have insurance. Because women tend to be in jobs that pay less, unionization especially benefits women workers.

Lower pay results in part from the history of women and people of color having less power in our society. Since money is a type of power, women and people of color having less money also reinforces the trend of women and people of color having less power in our society. "Bread and
butter" for women and people of color is connected to women and people of color having power or not having power in society and over their own lives.

Ultimately, it's up to all women workers and workers of color to decide in their own situations what their issues are. That may be "bread and butter" or an issue more like Mable's, or both or something else. The point is that when workplace organizing means women and people of color having more control over their lives and more power in society, then workplace organizing is a feminist and an anti-racist activity.

1 comment:

JRB said...

The concluding idea that having more control over our lives is feminist, anti-racist, and economically justified sums it up well.

Whatever our identity, or our relations, having control over our lives is the principle which unites us all. We celebrate in practice with others.