A friend asked me to write some remarks to be read at an International Women’s Day Rally on March 8, 2017, since I couldn’t attend the rally in person. Here’s the longer version of what I wrote. It’s a little choppy since I imagined it being read as a speech, giving it a different cadence than writing for the page, but I still think it’s worth sharing.
Growing up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, unions were part of the background of my life. Both of my grandparents had been members of unions, and my grandmother even served as the shop steward of her union, until they both retired, on a pension guaranteed by my grandfather’s union. Thanks to unions, my mother was able to get a college education, where she was exposed to the ideas of the Second Wave Feminist Movement. My mother raised me to have feminist values—to question and critique the society that teaches that women do not deserve a voice, that teaches that women should only identify themselves as wives and mothers, and that teaches that a woman’s worth is based upon whether men see her as beautiful. Growing up, the importance of the labor movement and the importance of the feminist movement were like water—I was surrounded by these ideas and I absorbed them without realizing it. They fostered a deep distaste for inequality and injustice and a desire for all people to be treated equitably, to be treated with dignity and respect simply because they were human beings, and that is what all human beings deserve.
Unfortunately, the world that we live in does not always see the inherent worth of human beings. In our capitalist society, the majority of people are denied basic needs that should be human rights such as food, clothing, housing, healthcare, an education, a sense of economic security, and a sense of fulfillment and purpose in their work, all so that a small number of people can become exorbitantly wealthy. We also live in a patriarchal society in which women’s work is devalued and underappreciated, whether a woman is working for free in the home or working outside the home where she is paid less than her male counterparts. Often women play both of these roles by working both within and outside the home, and the burdens of both spheres are exacerbated for single-mothers. The United States still does not guarantee free childcare or paid family leave, which leaves many families struggling.
However, for women who are burdened and underpaid in the workplace, there is a form of redress—unionizing. Typically, when we think of union workers, we think of men in factories or at construction sites. We think of stereotypically masculine, blue-collar jobs. Yet the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that organized labor’s ranks are growing the most quickly among Black women. Women in unionized workforces experience a smaller pay gap than their unorganized sisters. They are more likely to have paid time off to take care of their children. They are more likely to have better benefits that let them provide for their families. The labor movement and the women’s movement are closely linked, and they each strengthen and reinforce each other.
In the United States, the gap between the rich and poor looms ever larger and larger, leading some men to seek validation and status by putting women down. Patriarchal capitalism blames the feminist movement for men’s unemployment, even as it shames women for going into the workforce to become primary breadwinners because they are supposedly taking a man’s place. As workers, both women and men need to be empowered, to know that they are worth more than the paycheck they bring home or fail to bring home and to be freed from the constraints of gender roles that may or may not fit their current situations or their personal dispositions. Unionizing workplaces, including white collar and pink collar workplaces, contributes to that project of economic and social liberation. It gives both women and men a voice in their workplace, and raises up the work and the efforts of women workers in particular by allowing them to put in place workplace policies that will benefit themselves and their families.
Of course, securing equity for women, especially poor women and women of color, is a much larger project that just unionizing. But giving women a voice in their own workplaces must be part of that project. The importance of democracy in the workplace became very personal to me in my experiences working in the nonprofit field. Many of my co-workers were women, and we frequently found our ideas and voice being dismissed and silenced in staff meetings. Our suggestions were ignored, until our male colleagues offered the same suggestions. We were not taken as seriously as our male co-workers, and when we asked for accommodations in the workplace, we were denied. This sexism wasn’t so tangible or concrete that it could be covered in a harassment policy, but it was palpably real to us. For this reason, among many others, we decided to organize a union drive in our workplace. Working for a nonprofit, we believed in the greater good, and we hoped that we could implement the values that we fought for as part of our jobs in our workplace itself.
Sadly, we did not win our union election, but for those of us who led the campaign, we gained a sense of our worth as workers, as women and ultimately as human beings. Rather than allowing ourselves to be controlled by our situation, we attempted to take control of the situation ourselves and exert our own agency in the workplace. This agency is what empowerment for women looks like, moreso than the watered-down feminism that consumerism peddles to us in the form of advertisements promising empowerment through products. True empowerment is radical and transformative and it involves confronting the injustices in our lives head-on and refusing to back down to them. Across the country, women continue to find this empowerment through organizing their workplaces, from the hotel workers at Le Merigot Hotel in Santa Monica, California, to the writers at the popular women’s blog Jezebel.
Now, Donald Trump and the Republican Congress are attacking both women and workers. Any resistance to them must include protection for women and workers as well as explicitly for women as workers. We need a strong women’s movement and a strong labor movement, and a strong socialist feminist movement can bring these two groups together to make them unstoppable. As a chant Democratic Socialists of America gave at the Women’s March on January 21 went, “The women united will never be defeated! The workers united will never be defeated.” I would add to it now that the women workers united will never be defeated! Solidarity to all of you on International Women’s Day!