Posts Tagged ‘equality’

Household Workers Unite!

Tuesday, October 31st, 2017

Premilla Nadasen, Household Workers Unite: The Untold Story of African American Women Who Built a Movement (Boston: Beacon Press, 2015)

Within a short period of time, Premilla Nadasen has established herself as one of the most important historians of the US labour movement writing today. In Household Workers Unite: The Untold Story of African American Women Who Built a Movement and her previous book Welfare Warriors (New York: Routledge, 2005), Nadasen explores how class, race, gender, culture, and the law constitute the meanings of the work of social reproduction and the ways in which working class women of colour have disrupted these meanings, defining this labour as work, the home as a workplace, and in the case of domestic workers, claiming a right to organize as workers. In doing so, Nadasen’s scholarship centers a working class black feminism long marginalized in male-centric histories of the Civil Rights and labour movements, and in middle-class white women’s histories of the women’s movement.

Household Workers Unite is a narrative history of African-American domestic-worker organizing and activism. The book focuses in on the period between the early 1950s and late 1970s when “domestic workers established a national movement to transform the occupation” (3). While Nadasen draws on a range of sources, including government reports and journalistic exposes, it is the oral histories of African American women activists—brilliant organizers like Geraldine Roberts, Dorothy Bolden, and Josephine Hulett—that anchor the book. These women tell their own stories about the meaning of their labour, their desire to be viewed as a worker, and the fight to transform their occupation. As working class African American women, their stories connect to the broader struggle for black liberation, highlighting the racial exploitation of domestic labor, and are a form of activism, “a strategic way to make sense of the past as well as the present and to overturn assumptions about domestic workers” (3).

Anchoring the book in stories “not told about domestic workers, but stories that domestic workers articulated themselves” (3) serves a political purpose. As Nadasen notes in the book’s introduction, mainstream media narratives around domestic work cast these workers as victims, disempowered and without agency. The narrative of victimization denies domestic workers’ agency and marginalizes not only contemporary domestic worker organizing but a rich history of collective action stemming all the way back to 1881 when African American laundresses in Atlanta formed a Washing Society and went on strike for better wages and working conditions, effectively shutting down the city.

While the 1930s witnessed another wave of domestic worker organizing, New Deal labour legislation failed to treat the home as a workplace and denied household workers coverage under basic labour protections, including the right to a minimum wage and the right to organize and bargain collectively. These gendered and racialized exclusions were mirrored in social policy, as the white male industrial worker and his caregiving wife became the model around which labour law and the welfare state were constructed, denying African American women and other women of colour full citizenship. This is legal and historical backdrop for the rise of a national domestic workers’ rights movement focused on ending the exclusion of domestic workers from employment protections institutionalized in the New Deal.

Yet prior to the emergence of a national movement, Nadasen tells us that organizers like Dorothy Bolden in Atlanta and Geraldine Roberts in Cleveland were cutting their political teeth in civil rights struggles. Unlike the middle-class, male leadership of that movement, the likes of Bolden and Roberts were working class women with little formal education. They experienced the realities of white supremacy not only in public spaces, but also in the homes of their white employers. Yet domestic workers resisted, playing a pivotal role in some of the earliest civil rights campaigns, including the Montgomery bus boycott. They raised money by cooking and selling food, and mobilized other household workers in support of the campaign. And they stood up to employers, insisting on being treated as full human beings not only on the bus but also in their workplace.

In the milieu of the black freedom struggle, domestic workers increasingly came to understand their exploitation as a legacy of slavery. Rather than reject their identity as domestic workers, “they claimed it and sought to bring recognition and respect to the work they did” (57). As Nadasen writes, “Motivated by the civil rights movement, they came to believe that black freedom could best be achieved by mobilizing domestic workers to press for improvements in their occupation” (56).

As local domestic worker organizing efforts grew in number, leaders adopted the tactics of the civil rights movement to a nascent domestic worker rights movement. In the 1960s, the movement developed multiple and sometimes overlapping strategies, including professionalization and where possible, unionization. In the 1970s, domestic workers campaigned for full citizenship rights and forged a sometimes-uneasy alliance with middle-class women’s organizations. While divides of color and class were never truly overcome, organizations like the National Organization for Women and figures like Gloria Steinem supported a campaign for minimum wage legislation for domestic workers. The perseverance of movement organizers, and their ability to leverage the power of middle-class women’s organizations, led to a series of victories. In 1974 and 1976, amendments to federal labour law extended protections, including the right to the minimum wage and unemployment insurance, to some categories of household workers. For the women at the heart of the movement, these victories meant they would be recognized as workers, not servants, disassociating household work from the legacy of slavery.

Sadly, at the peak of its power, the movement atrophied. Whereas over one-third of employed African American women in the United States worked as domestics in the 1960s, black women increasingly found opportunities in the growing service sector. The movement also lacked sustained sources of funding.

Yet since the late 1990s, there has been a rebirth of domestic worker organizing. Local organizations such as Domestic Workers United in New York City now form the backbone of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA). The movement has fought for and won domestic worker bills of rights in a number of states. As the concluding chapters of the book make clear, immigration has changed the face of the movement and the question of immigration status has posed new barriers to organizing. Old battles need to be fought anew. As Nadasen states, “The shifting, contingent, and contested notions of work and citizenship suggest that this has been an important arena of political struggle for marginalized groups—a struggle that is still unfinished” (147).

Nadasen has done American labour history a great service. By recovering the voices of African American domestic workers and resurrecting a little know history, Household Workers Unite pushes the boundaries of the discipline, troubling those narratives of the labour movement that continue to center the experiences and struggles of the white male factory worker. In the days I wrote this review, the leadership of the United Auto Workers union expressed its desire to sit down with newly minted President Trump to talk trade. Meanwhile, the folks in the domestic worker movement are gearing up for the fight of their lives as their undocumented sisters are threatened with mass deportation. Maybe we should be looking less to the factory floor, and more to the kitchen, for the working class upsurge our historical moment so desperately needs.

A version of this article was published in Labour/Le Travail Vol. 79

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paying tribute to Socrates

Sunday, December 11th, 2011

The following piece was published back in 2008 in the November/December issue of Canadian Dimension magazine. Socrates died last Saturday. He was one of the greatest footballers of his generation, but more importantly, he matched sporting talent with a commitment to justice and egalitarian politics; a rare thing in the hyper-corporate sports culture of today. Farewell to a giant of football and a giant of the Brazilian left.  Check his obituary in the Guardian here.


Searching for Socrates

I’m not disappointed by Canada’s performance at the Summer Olympics.  Socialists ought to be internationalists by definition and as unconcerned with the patriotic displays of sporting prowess of their own countries as they are with that of any other.  Besides, the Olympics was originally conceived to demonstrate individual achievement, athletes as representations of their own commitment and excellence, not that of their nations. But I am seriously dismayed at the lack of political protest that marred – at least from a radical’s standpoint – the Beijing Games.

Despite all the hype that preceded the Games – and resulting Chinese concern with the potential to be politically embarrassed by dissenting athletes – these Olympics were unusually quiet and the athletes disappointingly quiescent. As I wrote in my last CD column, the Olympics and protest go hand in hand; so why so few voices of dissent when the Games are held in one of the most oppressive states in the world? This absence cannot be solely attributed to the authoritarian management of the Games (and the athletes themselves) by the Chinese government.  Sure, the iron fist Beijing employs to rule its unruly migrant workers was put to use for the Games, but visiting athletes had ample opportunity and diplomatic protection to carry out acts of dissent.

Whether the oppression of the Chinese working class, the denial of basic civic and political rights, the suppression of religious groups, or the imprisonment of dissidents, there were no shortage of issues to protest at the Games. And of course, Tibet, which I leave last only because its popularity as a political cause celebre has as much to do with the fad of Buddhism amongst the North American middle class as with concerns for the national liberation of a people (Americans in particular seem attracted to Tibet while peculiarly the U.S. anti-war/anti-occupation movement is waning, but I digress). Maybe the lack of protest at the Games merely signifies the decline of the political athlete.

This brings me to one of my own sporting heroes, the Brazilian soccer player, Socrates.  If ever there was a model of the politically engaged athlete, Socrates was it (with Muhammad Ali a close second). He was a man of contradictions. Considered a late-bloomer he made his debut for the Brazilian national team at the age of 25 and continued to play well into his forties. Despite being 6 foot 4 he was one of the most elegant midfielders to ever grace the game. And although he studied to be a medical doctor he smoked a pack-a-day throughout his career.

Like in many countries, in Brazil politics and soccer overlap: the personalities, the players, and the fans. Socrates captained the club Corinthians during some of the darkest days of the Brazilian dictatorship. Historically, Corinthians are the working class club of Sao Paulo and count the nominally socialist president Lula da Silva amongst their fans. But during the days of authoritarian rule, ownership of the club was controlled by right-wing elites close to the military. From 1978 to 1984, Socrates organized the Corinthians Democracy movement, an informal players association that demanded players’ rights but was understood by fans and players alike to be a symbolic challenge to the dictatorship.

The movement wrestled effective control of the club from the team’s management and installed a workers democracy with players voting on club matters. In one of the bravest acts of politico-sporting history, in 1982 the players voted to print “Vote on the 15th” on the back of their team uniform in the hopes it would motivate Brazilians – and particularly Corinthians’ working class and socialist support who had felt the brunt of authoritarian right-wing rule – to vote in the November 15th election. The election turned out to be a pivotal moment in the democratization of Brazil and Corinthians Democracy is widely regarded as an important factor in the country’s transition to democratic rule.

While Canada has never produced its very own Socrates, Canadian basketball player and two-time NBA MVP, Steve Nash, risked ridicule and scorn to vocally oppose America’s war on Iraq. It’s too bad our national basketball team didn’t qualify for the Beijing Olympics. And it’s too bad the Games have past with the Chinese people still searching for their very own Socrates.

Published in Canadian Dimension Nov/Dec 2008 42 (6)

Sexism, soccer, and struggle

Saturday, May 14th, 2011

In my latest column for Canadian Dimension, I explore the struggle for equality being waged by the Canadian women’s national soccer team.

Strikes. Protests. Boycotts. Tunisia? Egypt? Bahrain? How about the Canadian women’s national soccer team?

The team’s spat with the Canadian Soccer Association has sparked a players’ revolt. Two issues lay at the heart of the dispute: The first is coach Carolina Morace’s desire to have more control over the team’s budget; a good idea given a history of nepotism and financial mismanagement in the CSA that would make an Arab dictator blush. And the second is the CSA’s differential treatment of the women’s and men’s teams which should be named for what it is: sexism.

Looking to improve their compensation package, the women demanded to know how often and how much the men’s team gets paid. The women are paid on an ad-hoc basis, tournament by tournament, and sometimes are still negotiating pay days before a big game. The men of course are on more secure financial footing.  How secure, the CSA won’t say, which leads me to believe that the disparity between the two teams is as great as the women suspect.

Talk about gender inequality in the workforce: the women are akin to casual day labourers, negotiating wages with every new job. Remarkably, this precariousness hasn’t impacted their work on game day: they are ranked among the top women’s teams in the world. The same cannot be said of the men, currently 84th, just better than Mali but not quite as strong as Macedonia.

With the CSA refusing to cede to either demand, the women announced that they would boycott the upcoming women’s World Cup, a tournament the players will have likely dreamed of playing in since childhood.  Furthermore, they announced a player strike, refusing to participate in any international game leading up to the World Cup until the CSA gave them the respect they deserved (The U.S. women’s team went on strike a few years back and won pay equity).

While the CSA has opened contract negotiations with Morace and looks likely to secure her services beyond the World Cup, at the time this column went to print there’s been no resolution on the issue of player compensation. With Morace and the CSA in talks, the team called off their boycott and got themselves a lawyer. They will file for arbitration with the Sport Dispute Resolution Centre of Canada, whose mandate is to sort these types of things out in a ‘responsible’ manner (i.e. not boycotts and strikes).

We’ll have to wait and see if the legal strategy proves fruitful. As any well-schooled trade unionist knows, there’s nothing like the withdrawal of your labour to get the bosses attention. But should they go back on strike, it’s not like the players will be away from the daily drudgery of the factory; they would risk missing the biggest event of their sporting lives. The CSA knows this and it puts the women in a weak bargaining position.  If I were them, I’d explore some other channels: a letter writing campaign by soccer players across the country could apply pressure on the CSA and continuing to generate media attention, publicly shaming the association, won’t hurt either (A little solidarity from the men’s team would be nice!).

This affair is just the latest to expose the Canadian Soccer Association for what it is: an old-boys club whose administrative inertia and political infighting has produced an underachieving men’s program and an abysmal youth development scheme.  The success of the women’s team has come in spite, not because of, the Canadian Soccer Association. Too bad they can’t break from the old patriarchs altogether and establish a Canadian Women’s Soccer Association based on feminist and egalitarian principles. But in a game with only eleven players, we can’t all play left-wing.

Published in Canadian Dimension May/June 2011

‘SlutWalks’ Go Global

Sunday, May 8th, 2011

A Toronto cop, speaking to a group of students about campus safety at York University, said: “I’ve been told I’m not supposed to say this – however, women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimised.”

The comments sparked what is now a global movement and Toronto’s very own, and very unique, contribution to putting the ‘movement’ back into the women’s movement and revitalizing 3rd wave feminism. Check out the website below.

http://www.slutwalktoronto.com/

An excerpt from the SlutWalk manifesto:

“Historically, the term ‘slut’ has carried a predominantly negative connotation. Aimed at those who are sexually promiscuous, be it for work or pleasure, it has primarily been women who have suffered under the burden of this label. And whether dished out as a serious indictment of one’s character or merely as a flippant insult, the intent behind the word is always to wound, so we’re taking it back. “Slut” is being re-appropriated.

We are tired of being oppressed by slut-shaming; of being judged by our sexuality and feeling unsafe as a result. Being in charge of our sexual lives should not mean that we are opening ourselves to an expectation of violence, regardless if we participate in sex for pleasure or work. No one should equate enjoying sex with attracting sexual assault.

We are a movement demanding that our voices be heard. We are here to call foul on our Police Force and demand change. We want Toronto Police Services to take serious steps to regain our trust. We want to feel that we will be respected and protected should we ever need them, but more importantly be certain that those charged with our safety have a true understanding of what it is to be a survivor of sexual assault — slut or otherwise.

We are tired of speeches filled with lip service and the apologies that accompany them. What we want is meaningful dialogue and we are doing something about it: WE ARE COMING TOGETHER. Not only as women, but as people from all gender expressions and orientations, all walks of life, levels of employment and education, all races, ages, abilities, and backgrounds, from all points of this city and elsewhere.”

Also, check out this article in today’s Guardian:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/may/06/slutwalking-policeman-talk-clothing

The Case for Equality

Friday, April 1st, 2011

In my lastest contribution to Canadian Dimension, I review Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s The Spirit Level.

A review of The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Always Do Better by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett
Penguin, 2010

The Spirit Level’s argument is simple: In rich countries, a smaller gap between rich and poor means a happier, healthier, and more successful population. Along a range of social indicators, including teenage pregnancy, mortality, reported happiness, obesity, drug use, and the incidence of violence, more equal countries perform better. Overall quality of life – for all citizens – is thus deeply related to levels of economic inequality.

Wilkinson and Pickett produce data from 23 rich countries and 50 states to make their case. Using plenty of scatter graphs, regression analysis, and short, punchy chapters organized around the various social indicators, The Spirit Level shows that increases in social inequality are the source of many contemporary social problems. More equal Scandinavia and Japan consistently score better than the highly unequal US and the UK. Canada typically sits somewhere in the middle, flanked by the likes of France and Switzerland.

With socialists searching for new answers to old questions in the wake of the global economic crisis, The Spirit Level marks one contribution to something of a social democratic redux. With Third Way social democracy utterly disgraced by its affiliation with neoliberalism, social democratic soul searching has produced some lively polemics of late, from Tony Judt’s Ill Fares the Land to Will Hutton’s Them and Us. Ed Miliband – who keeps a copy of The Spirit Level close at hand – may be the first leader of a major European social democratic party to openly question the nostrums of the Third Way project and commit to closing the gap between the rich and poor.

This rethinking of social democracy is important. Third Way social democrats weren’t overly troubled by economic inequality; they committed to reducing absolute poverty but left widening disparities untouched. Their focus on targeted social investments in human capital development (through policies like early childhood education and job training) was grounded in predilections about the inevitability of globalized capitalism and the need for workers to adapt to the new competitive environment.

And Third Way disciples such as Tony Blair praised financial deregulation and innovation for the role it could play in ‘growing the economy’. A bigger economic pie, they argued, meant a bigger slice for workers, just a disproportionately smaller one than was dished out to them under the post-war compromise, with CEO salaries and investment banker bonuses reaching grotesque levels under neo-liberalism.

The beauty of The Spirit Level is that it puts economic equality back at the center of social democratic politics. The book’s drawbacks are in failing to adequately address the political limits to economic equality under capitalism. Policies that will affect the distribution and redistribution of wealth, from increasing trade union bargaining power to more progressive income taxes, are recommended by Wilkinson and Pickett. But their argument that policies that create equality should receive broad support across class lines, as it stands to benefit all, is naively optimistic; class struggle still matters. The rich may fear the type of violence that characterizes highly unequal societies, but they are more likely to build bigger walls around their gated communities than raise the red flag of egalitarianism in response. It is the hard work of everyday politics – from community organizing to political education – that will bring about more equal societies. While The Spirit Level doesn’t pretend to be a ‘how to’ guide for political action, it does confirm with hard science what we on the left have known intuitively for years: equality is not only morally right, but good for the mind, body and soul as well.

Published in Canadian Dimension March/April 2011