This Labor Day, support the country’s most militant workers: women and incarcerated workers

This Labor Day Weekend, while many observe the final holiday weekend that signifies the end of the summer, while politicians tweet out false message reveling in the American worker, and government and corporations systematically take away the rights of public/privatesector union workforces, women represent the largest group of low wage workers who have the most to lose from the Anti-Labor Movement; they will be serving your meals at restaurants, ringing you up at the registers for your family barbeque, and listening to your trivial complaints as you celebrate a holiday meant for them.

According to reports from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, of the 23.5 million Americans working low-wage jobs, 19 millionare women. Traditional so-called feminine jobs –  such as office and administration assistance, food preparation and serving, and beauty and personal services – are low-wage work, held mostly by women. A third of these women have children, and lack child care options and education. By 2024, one in six of all positions will be in “low-wage women’s work.”

The misconception that low wage work is only completed by teenagers hoping for some quick “movie money” is a complete falsehood. In the workforce sector that pays less than a living wage, 90% of the womenare over twenty years old. With union membership at only 6.5% for the private sector, women are feeling the brunt of the anti-union movement.

Despite the lack of strengththat union leaders feel confronting the current administration and its hostility to minorities, union members and their allies continue to use striking and picketing to make headway, as can be seen throughout the country.

In West Virginia, teacher’s strikes initially resulted in no significant gains while union leaders claimed victory. Teachers and supporters revolted, chanting “Go back to the bargaining table! We are the union bosses!” and continued striking for five more days to secure more concessions from the state. The Oklahoma Education Association (OEA), ending the shutdown for teachers after only nine days, angered and frustrated teachers. Around 70 percentof workers and parents wanted to continue the shutdown. In the end, the teachers took revenge on state legislators who criticized the strike by voting a majorityof them out of office.

While the teachers’ strike was ongoing, 1,400 communications workers went on strike. Some of the country’s most exploitable humans, currently incarcerated individuals,have organized a strike to end the abuses of the prison industrial complex. The motivations and purpose of the demonstrations, according to organizers, is a ‘“[Call] to an end to modern day slavery,’ they’re highlighting the 13thAmendment, which otherwise banned slavery, ‘except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.’ Prisoners laboring for little or no wages is common practice, and those on strike are demanding an end to it, along with nine other demands, such as rescinding the Prison Litigation Reform Act, the restoration of the voting rights for incarcerated people and greater funding for rehabilitation services.”

This Labor Day, as we celebrate and possibly mourn the continued attacks on organized labor, we must also highlight the work of the country’s most vulnerable; women and those in prison. Against the rank and file leaders of the union, workers across the country are continuing the militant activism of the Labor Movement.


(Photo Credit 1: CNN) (Photo Credit 2: Chicago Sun-Times / AP / Jacquelyn Martin)

It may be Labor Day in the USA but not for the `un-worthy’ cleaners

Hands in Solidarity, Hands of Freedom mural on the United Electrical Workers building, Chicago, Illinois

It’s Labor Day weekend in the United States, and I’ve been thinking of the names, words, and voices that are consistently dropped out of the public accounts of workers and of labor. They’re stories that are deemed not worth telling or selling. Who decides the value of a story or the worth of a person or a people? Who decides something or someone is beyond worthless, beyond unworthy, is actually filled with un-worth? Consider two stories, from this weekend, that concern cleaners, and how their gender is `of no consequence’.

One involves cleaners at the University of the Free State, in South Africa, the other involves cleaners at GEICO headquarters, in suburban Washington, DC, in the U.S.

In February 2008, four white students at the University of the Free State made a horrible video. According to one report, “The video depicts four white male students taking four black, elderly, female workers and making them down a bottle of beer, run a race, play rugby and then kneel and eat meat which had been urinated on”. According to other reports, it was five Black elder workers, four women and one man.

Whatever the number, the workers were Black, overwhelmingly women, and elders. The media consensus? Racism. This was simply a matter of racism. Why? Perhaps because the students themselves said the video was in protest of racial integration of the residences. Perhaps.

Over this weekend, a full eighteen months later, the South African Sunday Times reports those cleaners, “four elderly female cleaners” are now “still being taunted”, by students, and are still haunted every time they don their cleaner uniforms. They have asked, since February 2008 when the film was made and circulated, for the University to change their uniforms. As of yet, nothing has changed, in either outfit or culture.

The report never deigns to quote any of the cleaners, instead opting only for the words of minister of higher education Blade Nzimande. And so the video remains simply racist. Gender matters not, elder status matters not. These topics are un-worthy.

I’ve been thinking about the names, words and voices of women workers, and in particular cleaners, because of an incident in Washington, DC. “12 union workers” lost their jobs recently when GEICO, the insurance giant, changed cleaners, and in so doing, moved from a unionized company to a non-union company. Service Employees International Union, SEIU, local 32BJ represents `property service workers’, and is staging protests. Washington Business Journal reports on the situation, without any names, other than those of corporations and union locals. Local National Public radio station WAMU reports on the protest, and interviews union district chair Jaime Contreras and company senior vice president Don Lyons. No workers. Radio América interviewed Jaime Contreras, who spoke, compellingly, of the workers’ situation. The television network, Univision, also ran a piece. They interviewed Dima Diaz, of SEIU, and Jose Rafael Cabrera, a dismissed worker. They tried to interview company boss Derek Miller, but no luck.

If you watch the Univision piece, you might notice that the majority of union activists and workers in the piece are women. Where are they in the reports? I am not saying the SEIU or the news media conspired to keep them out. But they did keep them out. It would be surprising if a crew of 17 cleaners was exclusively men workers. In fact, it would be shocking.

I understand that workers, women or men, may not want to have their names shared, might have reasons, many reasons, to protect their anonymity. But their words? As long as women workers, and in particular women workers of color, are kept out of reports of their own struggles, they will be continue to be considered un-worthy of attention, respect or recognition. Those women workers, those cleaners, have names, words, voices.

(Photo Credit: Harvard College Women’s Center)