Seeking Unity Across Sex, Race, and Class
by Diane Lefer
In an era when we see the faces of women, people of color, gay and lesbian people and people with disabilities among the 1%,”All the movements we have founded for our liberation are now represented in the establishment,” said women’s rights and anti-racist activist Selma James, “but we are not.”
And we remain unlikely to prevail without unity.
James, born in New York, one-time resident of South LA, veteran of anti-colonial struggles in the Caribbean, and now UK-based, was back in the US to launch her new book, Sex, Race and Class — The Perspective of Winning. As the keynote speaker at the Teach-In, “Sex, Race & Class: What Are the Terms of Unity?” on Saturday, March 24 at the Southern California Library in South LA, she drew on decades of organizing experience to talk about how to bridge the divide among the different sectors that make up the 99%.
The answer may well be “Money.” Not as the root of all evil, but the source of both autonomy and commonality.
Forty years ago, interpreting Marxist economic theory through a feminist and humanist lens, James coined the phrase “unwaged work” to highlight the reality that most of the work — and the most important work of society — is done by people who aren’t paid and are therefore not considered “workers.” And most of those people are women.
She decried the idea that women gain equality by going out to work. This limited view of women’s rights — opening the door to some — “has caused a class split in women as we have never had it before. Women have become part of the elite — some women, a few women — and the rest of us have less than we did before.” Every job she ever had “has always been an exploitation. It has not only taken my time but also my possibilities.” Low wage and exhausting work leaves little time for your relationships, especially the relationship with your children. “Why is the birth and rearing of children a crisis for our society? What kind of society do we live in that children are not a priority?”
Women bear and raise children, care for elderly parents, volunteer in the schools and raise money to make up for inadequate school funding — even in exclusive private schools. Women run soup kitchens and food pantries and are tireless advocates for incarcerated loved ones. Every time governments “cut any social service they do it on the basis that we women will pick up the pieces,” she said. In this era of austerity, “demanding wages for the work we do is crucial to the liberation of women.”
But what does a demand for paid housework have to do with unity? Well, consider: What would happen to the controversy over welfare which has too often divided poor and middle class and black and white? What if we said women — all women — have the right to be compensated for being mothers and homemakers? “Homemakers receiving payment should have the dignity of having that payment called a wage instead of welfare,” James said.
All women, she said, should be able to give their children what no one else can give, to have the right to stay home, if they want to, with their children up to the age of two or three without suffering loss of needed income.
Everything comes back to “Invest in Caring Not Killing,” the strategy for change espoused by Global Women’s Strike, the group which Selma James coordinates.
Long before “framing” became a catchword, she was doing it — an anti-racist activist who in organizing avoids words like race.
As an example, she cited work she’d done in Guyana where people of Indian descent and people of African descent were at sometimes violent loggerheads while politicians used race to manipulate their Indo or Afro constituencies. Her Red Thread organization wanted to bring together Afro and Indo women and the poorest women, the indigenous in the hinterlands. So grassroots women did a time-use study. What did they do all day? They showed the communities that what they mostly did was work. 12, 14, 16-hour days for both the Afro and Indo women while the indigenous women worked even more. With the recognition of this shared burden, the organization was able to build a “national network of women across race.”
“Organize on the basis of what you have in common,” James advised. In her work on the pay-for-housework campaign she “organized women not in regard to whether they were racist or anti-racist but whether they wanted the money.”
Another example: at the 1977 National Women’s Conference in Houston, a gathering authorized by public law and supported with federal funds, pro-life and pro-abortion delegates fought it out. At the same time, people of color, welfare recipients, and members of the Ku Klux Klan (openly present in the Mississippi delegation) came together around the statement: Every mother is a working mother. Who can argue with that?
“Every issue in front of us is of concern to every other sector,” she said. “The waged and the unwaged are together in that slogan: We are the 99%.”
And yes, today, there are men dedicating themselves to raising their children and to eldercare, a cultural development that James applauds. “Being a carer is a very civilizing influence,” she said. “And I would like to see men civilized.”
Her son, trade unionist Sam Weinstein, spoke during the day’s first panel discussion to note that workers at all pay levels need to recognize that the fight over the minimum wage is also their own fight. “When the minimum wage goes up, it shifts all wages up.”
Anti-poverty activist Nancy Berlin addressed current welfare policy. Even after families lost assistance due to the Clinton era “reform” to “end welfare as we know it,” today’s budgets threaten worse. She cited California Governor Jerry Brown’s attempt to cut the cost of the CalWORKS program by giving people less time to find work (at a time of high unemployment) before cutting benefits. He has also proposed creating two classes of recipients, with more money going to those who are gainfully employed. She pointed out that CalWORKS represents only 3% of the state budget. Even if you eliminated welfare entirely in the State of California, this extreme measure would not solve the budget problem. “Three out of four people on welfare are children,” she said, and “$638 is the maximum grant. How do you live on that?” It gets worse: When you can’t make ends meet, your children can be removed from your home.
Berlin urged all sectors to support HR 3573, the RISE out of Poverty Act introduced by Rep. Gwen Moore, D-WI. Among other provisions, RISE would allow a single parent with an infant under six months of age to stay home and care for that baby without being penalized; when child care is not available, single parents with children younger than 13 would not be sanctioned for not working outside the home; talented and qualified recipients would be able to seek higher education instead of being limited to associates degrees and vocational training. The bill has been sitting in the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and the House Ways and Means Committee since early December.
“The bill isn’t getting the attention it deserves,” said Berlin. Progressive groups say “it’s not a winnable bill so why work for it?” She dismissed that excuse: “Imagine not working for civil rights in the Sixties!”
Molly Trad of the Household Workers Committee of CHIRLA (the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles) organizes “the few household workers who are paid — because we work in someone else’s home.” But, she says, they too often have trouble collecting that pay. And just like homemakers, they are on-call all the time without overtime pay: “Like women at home we are called in the middle of the night by people who have real needs.” She urged support of AB 889, the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, now being considered in the California legislature.
The teach-in that began with old-school organizers ended with an afternoon panel drawn from the newest movement: individuals from Occupy LA, among those we can thank for the fact that, in the words of Margaret Prescod, host of the teach-in and of “Sojourner Truth” on radio station KPFK, “The whole discussion in this country changed from austerity to inequality.”
Sheila Nichols helped set up Kid Village — a safe space for women and children at the encampment — and helped organize self-policing. “We’ve been very divided and conquered,” she said. “I’m here to tell you Occupy shifted that completely.” People with many different causes and agendas had to learn to cooperate in very basic ways: “Just getting up in the morning and figuring out where you’re going to go to the bathroom,” she said.
Though police evicted Occupy LA from the park around City Hall at the end of November, the movement continues with General Assembly meetings at Pershing Square.
“Our struggle is about the issues on Main Street,” said Kwazi Nkrumah of Occupy the Hood and so, after the movement was evicted activists have gone literally to Main Street to build an alliance with the homeless and homeless activists on Skid Row. “Some Occupy members didn’t want this alliance,” at least not at first, he said, but he sees a common interest in the human right to decent housing. It brings together the homeless, tenants whose campaign for a rent freeze was squashed by the apartment owners, and homeowners threatened with foreclosure by the banks (to which you might add another group mentioned later by Homies Unidos co-founder Alex Sanchez: people displaced by gentrification).
Occupy folks now camp out Friday nights on Skid Row, in front of LACAN (the Los Angeles Community Action Network) “to build relationships with people,” said Vanessa Carlisle, “and find out what they need and see how we can help.”
John Waiblinger of Occupy’s gay affinity group said the encampment brought “individual oppressions into a common arena.” He was used to working in his own gay community as an activist, a place where he felt safe. After some bad experiences, he said, he was afraid to venture out but through Occupy LA he found people willing to stand in solidarity with him. And when the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBT advocacy organization, chose to name Goldman Sachs as their corporate equality honoree, he took part in a protest action. The mainstream gay rights organizations have, he said, “forgotten our brothers and sisters in poverty and incarcerated and lacking health care.” Trying to “sanitize the movement in order to make us acceptable,” Waiblinger said, “we’ve suppressed transgender voices and people of color because we want to assimilate and look middle class.” His conclusion after participating in the Occupy movement: “All of our rights are community rights. I have to stand up with all the oppressed communities.”
That community transcends national boundaries. Actor and activist Danny Glover, a prominent supporter of the Haiti Emergency Relief Fund, joined the Teach-In via Skype after having to leave LA suddenly due to a death in the family. We must “always resist the attempt to compartmentalize our struggle,” he said.
“What does Haiti have to do with us?” asked Margaret Prescod. The history of Haiti is the story of “people who had nothing but rose up and defeated the most powerful military of the day.” Although, as she said “the colonial powers have never forgiven Haiti,” and as Danny Glover pointed out, US policy is aimed at keeping Haiti “a bastion of cheap labor, not a place where people flourish,” it’s still a place where “movement building happens every single moment,” he said.
Jeb Sprague, author of Paramilitarism and the Assault on Democracy in Haiti talked of how the rightwing has taken advantage of the devastating January 2010 earthquake, grabbing aid contracts, privatizing services. Of the $3.6 billion raised for relief, only 1% went to the Haitian people. (Please note that in “Haiti after the Quake,” an article in CounterPunch on January 3 of this year, Bill Quigley and Amber Ramanauskas reported that thirty-three cents of every US dollar for Haiti was actually given directly back to the US to reimburse ourselves for sending in our military.)
With that disparity, it’s no wonder that Haitians remain in squalid tent cities without clean water or latrines while employees of international NGOs get high salaries and new high-end hotels. And faced with the corporatization, professionalization and privatization of caring here and abroad, it’s no wonder activists at the teach-in repeated the slogan: We are building a movement, not a nonprofit.
Early in the day, 81-year-old Selma James (who promptly corrected Margaret Prescod when she introduced James as being 82), praised and assured the people of the Occupy Movement “you can do no better thing with your life than to organize against capitalism.”
She concluded the teach-in with a call for a shorter work week without any cut in pay.
Women are tired. Women of all classes are working too hard.
“We have to work less,” she said. “We need more time for each other.”
And more time to organize.
Diane Lefer is an author, playwright, and activist. Her latest books include The Blessing Next to the Wound, nonfiction co-authored with Colombian exile Hector Aristizabal, and the crime novel, Nobody Wakes Up Pretty, which Edgar Award winner Domenic Stansberry describes as ”sifting the ashes of America’s endless class warfare,” due out May 2012 from Rainstorm Press. Lefer also writes for LA Progressive, where this article originally appeared.