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.


CDW said...

Thank you for sharing this Maria-Great work J.R..This is helpful to me as I consider rejoining the IWW. It is good to know that other women share similar experiences..

KC said...

We are a new group here in Kansas City, so maybe some sexists will join later, but my experiences here have been absolutely wonderful (I don't think anyone has even noticed that I'm female). I thought that all IWWs understand that we must not divide ourselves along the lines of race, gender, politics, religion, job title (except bosses), etc. It's a shame that these types of upper class divide and conquer tactics have affected my FWs. We should know better.

JRB said...

Hi KC!

I'm glad to hear about your new group and great experiences.

I think sexism is just something that men will struggle with, even if they are formally opposed to it. For instance, I'm opposed to it in principle, yet I'm also aware of the ways I fail my partner in household responsibilities and other types of work that are socially assigned to her. I'd like to be a better friend to her and other women in my life, so I start by articulating the things I believe, and then try to follow through on them. But it's hard -- and I'm someone who is very consciously feminist in orientation. So the issue for me has less to do with identification than it does with practice.