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