Women’s Voice and Women’s March

#MeToo discussion at year end organizing meeting in New Orleans

New Orleans   Many women hit the streets once again all around the country at the anniversary of the first Women’s March. The theme was more political activism as the new face of resistance with the looming midterm elections providing the focal point. Numbers in local cities seemed to be running at half of last year’s totals, but that was to be expected at this point when resilience is twin to resistance.

One of the more interesting workshops for the Year End/ Year Beginning meeting of our organizers top organizers from ACORN Canada, Local 100, and other operations in New Orleans was how to transfer the recognition and cultural shifts of the #MeToo moment into the meetings of our workplace and community organizations as well as through our media outlets. Some organizers told stories of members complaints of harassment from landlords demanding sex in exchange for repairs and late fees, and questioned whether their organizational response would have been the same now in this climate as it was a couple of years ago when the issue presented. Judy Duncan, the head organizer of ACORN Canada as well as other office directors in Canada, the United States and Local 100 believed that they needed to talk to local leadership, many, if not most, of whom are women about making a place in the agenda of meetings in the coming months so that women had a space to talk about incidents of harassment and abuse and groups could debate and take effective action.

John Cain from KABF and others involved in AM/FM radio programming thought that the stations should ask hosts to raise the issue on their shows and encourage call-in’s, referral, and complaint. Others thought regular public service announcements encouraging women to come forward and giving them voice could be helpful.

Appropriately, there was also discussion about how women’s voice and perspective were integrated into the internal staff and leadership dynamics of organizing as well, especially since organizing has so long been characterized as male dominated field, and despite progress over recent decades, invariably contains vestiges of such a history, tradition, and stereotypes. There was an interesting discussion on whether organizers should counter the devaluation of women’s voice internally by formalizing relationships to break the pattern. Likely addressing everyone as Mr, Mrs, or Ms would not work, but there is a reason that old labor culture embraced addressing co-combatants as Sister and Brother, or comrade as was common in the South African struggle and others, or citizen during and after the French Revolution. Breaking habits in order to signify respect and as markers that we need to deal with each other differently would not be a trivial step forward in breaking old patterns and habits.

Beth Butler, head organizer of ACORN affiliate, A Community Voice, ended the workshop by letting everyone go around the room and indicate what they would do to implement the consensus and to create a different climate for women. The pledges were deep and sincere. We will have to make sure the followup is of a like kind, both here and everywhere else.


Taking the #MeToo Moment into the Workplace and Community

New Orleans   In all of the discussion of the #MeToo moment, the most moving story I have read was not the stories about Hollywood, media stars and Washington electeds, but the daily struggles on the assembly line waged by women trying to hold onto family-security wages at Ford plants. These weren’t the stories of wolf-whistles at construction sites or simple side-comments in the parking lot or at the time clock, though there were undoubtedly plenty of them. These were stories where women were forced to sleep for their jobs and more.  These were the usually silent screams of the working class and its women trying to fight their way to some safe space and pay equity. We heard them for a minute, and they forced a visit from the CEO of Ford to the plant and a public apology.

The Times-Up women from Hollywood were careful to say they would stand with women service workers, farm and hotel workers, but their strategy is lawsuits thus far, so the results may take a long time to be seen and felt, if ever. Even in the auto plant expose, the women’s union, the great UAW, wasn’t adequate protection. Union women activists and organizers called them out after the article ran in the New York Times. It was a cry of embarrassment. Where will it be heard?

One of the first big grievances we won with our fledgling local in our first contract representing the cafeteria workers subcontracted at Tulane University involved a spunky, young woman named Gail Kelly. Her aunt, Daisy, had been a sparkplug in the organizing drive and a member of the bargaining committee. Gail was written up and recommended for termination. The offense we grieved was over her failure, despite repeated warnings, to “smile on the line” while she served students who were her same age on the other side of the cafeteria counter. The real story didn’t take long to unravel. Too many Tulane athletes and male students saw Gail as fair game and made her the brunt of constant flirting, innuendo, and direct propositions. Her survival strategy was a street sharpened tongue and a stern face that didn’t offer a smile that could be misinterpreted as a solicitation for more harassment across the counter. We won that grievance at the general manager’s level. Winning changed Gail, too. She later became a steward at the work site and then an organizer for Local 100 and later ran drives for SEIU local unions organizing thousands of home care workers in California until ill health and personal tragedy broke her soaring spirit.

This item is on the agenda for our yearly meeting. Some organizers will be uncomfortable seeing it find its place in the small group discussion, but their unease is the wrong reaction. My hope is that this conversation will focus on how we make our community and union meetings open forums for women to talk about their struggles with harassment and abuse. Everyone has a story, but working, low-and-moderate income women, like the Ford women, need real spaces for the conversation, and union halls and community organizations need to step up and provide it, and then stand up and take action in solidarity with them.

Call it simple justice or the right thing to do, but I’ll call it the follo