Women and Economic Justice

Women and Economic Justice

Reimagine | Vol. 19, No. 2 – 2013 | Credits

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The Means of Reproduction

Interview with Silvia Federici
By Lisa Rudman and Marcy Rein

As a feminist activist, writer, and teacher, Silvia Federici engages and inspires students of all ages to fight for the liberation of women and all beings. In 1972, Federici cofounded the International Feminist Collective, which launched the “Wages For Housework” campaign. While teaching and researching in Nigeria in the 1980s, she observed the specific impacts of globalization on women—and their similarities to the social disruption caused by the enclosure of the commons in the earliest days of capitalism. She became active in the anti-globalization movement and the U.S. anti-death-penalty movement, and cofounded the Committee for Academic Freedom in Africa. From 1987 to 2005 she taught international studies, women’s studies, and political philosophy at Hofstra University in Hempstead, NY. Her books and essays span philosophy, feminist theory, women’s history, education, and culture, and more recently, the worldwide struggle against capitalist globalization and for a feminist reconstruction of the commons. Caliban and the Witch: Women, The Body and Primitive Accumulation, perhaps her best-known work, argues that capitalism depends on a constant supply of women’s unwaged labor. Federici sat down for this interview while she was on a tour to promote her new book, Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle (Common Notions), a collection of essays written over the last forty years. In conversation, Federici moves smoothly between history, theory, and present struggles, hardly stopping for breath, almost vibrating with concern and indignation.

Q: What is reproduction and why have you made it a central issue in your analysis?
Silvia Federici: It’s important politically to confront the question of reproduction because we are experiencing an unprecedented crisis of reproduction. When I speak of reproduction, I don’t speak only in the sense of procreation, although that is part of it, but of all the activities necessary for the reproduction of human life—from housework to subsistence agriculture, to the production of culture and care for the environment.
The policies brought in by the neoliberal agenda have, in fact, made reproduction a question for millions of people across the world. We’ve witnessed a tremendous attack on our means of reproduction—on every form of sustenance from wage employment to services to access to nature and the commonwealth—land, water, and forests.

The struggle of domestic workers, of the mothers of Fukushima, of subsistence farmers across the world; the struggle in the public schools because they have been defunded and privatized; all these struggles together [are] what I mean by struggles of reproduction.

I’m very disappointed that Governor [Jerry] Brown of California decided not to sign the bill of rights that domestic workers have fought for for a long time. It represents a very important moment in the struggle for the redefinition of reproduction and puts some value on this work and gives power to the people [engaged in] reproductive labor.

Today, for millions of people, the question of whether they’ll be able to reproduce is answered in the negative. There’s hardly one basic service that has not been slashed, [affecting] children, older people, healthcare. Really basic necessities have all been decimated. So, clearly what’s needed is a new broad mobilization on the question of reproduction that connects all the different struggles.

Women in the Waged Workforce
Q: Feminist struggles for equality under capitalism from the 1960s through the ‘80s did actually move what had been unwaged women’s work into the paid economy, even if it was often as waged domestic labor, such as home care. Did that improve the condition of women and the working class as a whole?
Federici: If we look at the world, and not only the situation in the United States, Europe, or Japan, we see that, in fact, what we call globalization and the massive entrance of women into wage work is much less uniform than usually imagined. At the same time that millions of women were entering the labor force in the U.S., many in Europe were losing their jobs—for example, in the former socialist countries—which in fact, triggered a tremendous migration from Russia, Moldavia, Ukraine.

The same is true for much of Africa, parts of Asia, and Latin America, where the programs of structural adjustment really cut a lot of women’s jobs. That’s why so many women have had to migrate, seeking an income doing domestic work or sex work, or working as nurses across the globe.
Secondly, women entered the waged workforce in the United States at the very time—the 1980s—when that workforce and the workplace were under tremendous attack; when this massive attack on workers’ entitlement and workers’ rights was launched under Reaganism. So, while women have gained more autonomy certainly from men, they’ve not gained autonomy from capital. Their life has become a life of permanent crisis. Women now have to juggle a paid job and work at home, in many cases also taking care of the family or sick family members.

Among working class women, life expectancy is beginning to decline, according to some recent reports. In the U.S., women can expect to live three to four years less than their mothers, which is a very telling sign of the crisis of reproduction. Also, because reproductive work is historically devalued in capitalist society, the wages and labor conditions that immigrant women in domestic work can look for are abysmally low in the great majority of cases.

The domestic workers’ struggle is very much conducted on all these fronts: reproductive work and the fact that society has yet to recognize the importance of it; the struggle around immigration; and [the struggle] against racial prejudices, [since] many are women of color, from an Asian or African background.

Q: Can you describe the evolution of your thinking, from the Wages for Housework campaigns of the 1970s to now?
Federici: The Wages for Housework campaign was extremely important. It was like a lever to undo and destabilize a certain sexual division of labor that was based precisely on the fact that this work was unpaid. It was never an ultimate goal but a strategy to change power relations and undermine the dependence of women on the male wage.

Often, women thought that we were asking the husband to pay a wage. No, we were asking the state for wages for housework, not wages for housewives, because this is work.

Think for a minute [of] the range of social services that the employer class would have to put into place if there hadn’t been a woman all this time at home, making sure that the next morning this person could go to the workplace restored, for another day’s work. [Imagine if] a woman had not done the washing, the cooking, [the taking] care of the kids, the consoling [of] the children and the husband; [or provided] emotional support and sexual services (which are very important part of the work expected of women). It took a long struggle for women to recognize rape in the family [and] the idea that the woman’s body is [hers].

Struggles that begin to reclaim the wealth [women produce in the home] are extremely important. But today I don’t see those struggles only as being at the monetary level. Lately I’ve been very interested in the question of the commons and [reclaiming] many forms of wealth that are not connected with the wage system.

We want to reclaim housing, land, the right to free education. These are all elements of what I would say is [part] of reproduction.

Power of Procreation
Q: Could you comment on the attacks on women’s right to control our bodies, and the drive to circumscribe the conditions under which we can relate, have children, and get services to support those children?
Federici: Well, I think it’s playing an enormous role because it really attempts to institute subordination of women to men. Within the family, the state expects women to pick up all the work—as they always did, but now more than ever—that is accumulating because of the cuts in services. For instance, in England, the Big Society program that Cameron has sponsored for some years is built on the mobilization of a lot of volunteer work—unpaid, mostly women’s labor—under the name of community building.

The state has always tried to control women’s bodies because they are the vehicle for the production of workers. From their point of view, we are machines for the production of labor power. There’s a direct connection between women’s reproduction of children and the dynamics of the labor market.

Now, they haven’t always wanted more children. In many cases, they have wanted women to be sterilized when the children they produced demanded more than the capitalist class was willing to concede. But the issue has always been the desire to control the female body, both in terms of the labor market and also of the discipline and the relationship between women and men.

As we learned in the feminist movement, [often] the first obstacle a woman encounters when she wants to make a fight is not directly the state but the man in the family. So, it has been very useful and productive for the state that men have this power over women and procreation. Sexuality has been part of their mechanism of surveillance and policing of women. We now have this situation where on one side, the right wing is sponsoring every military campaign so that children all over the world [are being] decimated, [while on the other], they are cutting the services that would allow children and families to thrive, leading to a continuous increase in the infant mortality rate.

Then, with a hypocrisy that has no limits, they want to tell us that if the children we carry in our womb are born badly, that is our responsibility. There’s a very complex set of disciplinary objectives that passes through control of our bodies.

Student Debt
Q: I know you’ve spoken about how education brings together this longstanding trajectory of austerity, privatization, and debt. Could you explain that more?
Federici: It’s a disgrace because education should not be something that is bought and sold. In fact, there’s now a movement against debt, which has taken off over the last year and is spreading across the country. It’s very important because it makes a key issue [of] the fact that the debt is illegitimate.

The debt should not be paid because it comes out of an unjustified policy [that] basically says you can buy and sell ideas; buy and sell education. If you are a student, you’re told you have no future if you don’t have an education. There’s something fraudulent happening here. Students have been asked to do something that is really impossible. Education should not be a commodity—something that you put on the counter as if it’s a tube of toothpaste.

Q: You were talking about educational debt; I was thinking also about the level of credit card debt burdening the working class because employers have been increasingly unwilling to negotiate terms and conditions that will let people survive.
Federici: In New York, the movement began as students against the debt. That is still on, but it’s become part of a broader movement that is now struggling against debt as an instrument of discipline. We see more and more, debt becoming the tool through which people are exploited and the tool through which the capitalist class accumulates wealth.

There’s a broad front, because when you are exploiting a person as a debtor rather than as a worker, you have a very different type of relation. The work involved becomes invisible. The exploitation relation becomes invisible.

Shape of Movement to Come
Q: What response do you see or would like to see to this?
Federici: I’d like to see a new broad-based, mass-based, women’s movement because [it] mobilized around the issue of reproduction. I’d like to see a movement that reopens a mass struggle on that ground and connects all these different fronts. So, those who work in the home are not isolated and there’s a breakdown of the walls between the home and the community, the home and the neighborhood. [Then] we can begin to think of a more collective way of reproducing ourselves because when you have a person who’s not self-sufficient, or with young children, you can’t expect [them] to take on [reproduction], except at a tremendous cost.

Q: What is “commoning” exactly? What are some of the models for people trying to create more “commoning?”
Federici: Some of the models for commoning have come from countries in Latin America [and] Africa that were subjected to very devastating processes of economic liberalization in the ‘80s, [when] many communities found themselves completely deprived of access to money and land. So, women started coming together and organizing collectively out of necessity, to make common kitchens, shop together, cook together—breaking down that division between the home and the neighborhood.

At the same time, other women began to farm together, also breaking down the separation between country and town. So, in response to a crisis there [was] a big thrust towards the collectivization of reproduction.

Now this is happening in the U.S. For example, the proliferation of solidarity economies is very interesting. There [are] hundreds of time banks [with] people sharing services: I do so many hours of work for you cutting hair and for those hours, you may teach me how to manage a radio, for example. These are very important signs of a new form of sociality and a new economy coming into existence.

I think that the Occupy movement has two elements: the political [and] also sociality—wanting to be together, wanting to exchange, the organization of cooking, cleaning, and space shared. It’s moving in that direction. 

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Working Women and Birth Control

By Shanelle Matthews

Among the myriad reasons why women use birth control, one of the most obvious is—we work. A recent study[1] finds that women believe improved career outcomes are a direct result of access to contraceptives. Women make up almost half the workforce,[2] so our contributions are integral to the economy.

In 1960, when Enovid, the first birth control pill, received FDA approval, U.S. women began weighing their options. Without unintended pregnancies, they could pursue higher education and improve their value in the job market—and they did just that. The pill revolutionized women’s ability to have successful careers outside the home. 

Opponents of contraception—fundamentalist Christians, the Catholic Church hierarchy, and politicians like Rick Santorum—cite the sanctity of life as their justification. But it’s evident that they want to see women confined to antiquated gender roles and out of the workplace. The Christian fundamentalist “Quiverfull” movement is explicit on this point.[3] Mary Pride’s The Way Home: Beyond Feminism, Back to Reality quotes the Bible to maintain that women’s role is as “mothers, as bearers of children, and workers in the home under the authority of a husband.”[4]

Many studies show that limiting access to birth control increases the likelihood of unintended pregnancies, which according to the Brookings Institution, account for over 50 percent of pregnancies every year.[5] For women who can’t afford access to birth control and rely on federally funded programs like Planned Parenthood, a federal ban would be like telling them to not have sex at all.

Since no ban on birth control will curb our innate human need to have sex, we are likely to see a spike in pregnancies, which require working women to take leave, some of whom will never return. According to the Working Mother Research Institute, 35 percent of career-oriented moms stay home after giving birth because the cost of childcare is too high. Another 19 percent do not return because of the birth of additional children.[6] Having a child, whether intended or unintended, increases the strain on family resources. This does not change for women who become pregnant because of limited access to birth control.

While some argue that being a stay-at-home mom is a luxury, families at the bottom of the pay scale probably disagree. If the costs of childcare (which in 2010 exceeded median annual rent payments in every state, according to a report by Child Care Aware of America[7]), transportation, and other necessities exceed your monthly income, staying at home may be the only option. Although women have been the topic of conversation this electoral season, anti-choice advocates have been silent about the consequences of limiting access to birth control.

With the rhetoric we’re fed by corporate media, it’s easy to believe that the debate around contraception is recent. That it took women until the 21st century to argue for their right to birth control. But the truth is there has never been a time in history when women haven’t protected themselves from conception. We’ve always believed we deserve to enjoy life outside of being pregnant.

The concept of controlling fertility did not start with Margaret Sanger and the American birth control movement, but with indigenous women who, in the fight to preserve personal sovereignty, made the best, most practical decisions for themselves and their families. However, it benefits the patriarchal agenda of the religious right to question the morality and utility of contraception. And the more we debate, the further we are from normalizing it. 

1. <guttmacher.org/pubs/journals/j.contraception.2012.08.012. pdf>
2. <economix.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/10/15-/contraceptive-economics/?ref=contraception>
3.    The Christian Quiverfull movement derives its name from Psalm 127:3–5, where many children are metaphorically referred to as the arrows in a full quiver. <en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quiverfull>
4.    Mary Pride, The Way Home: Beyond Feminism, Back to Reality.” Good News Publishing. 1985.
5.    <brookings.edu/research/papers/2011/07/unintended-pregnancy-thomas-monea>
6.    <workingmother.com/research-institute/what-moms-choose-working-mother-report>
7.    <naccrra.org/sites/default/files/default-_site_pages/2012/cost_report_2012_final_081012_0.pdf>

Shanelle Matthews (shanellematthews.org) is the communications manager for Forward Together (forwardtogether.org).

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Women Lose Public Sector Jobs as Stimulus Funding Fades

By Joan Entmacher and Katherine Gallagher Robbins

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009 was central to preserving public sector jobs, most of which are held by women. Not only did it provide funds for state and local education and Medicaid—which kept teachers and health care workers on the job—it bolstered state budgets so other services could avoid deep cuts. ARRA also provided additional funding to states for child care, child support enforcement, and administration to handle the upsurge in Food Stamp and Unemployment Insurance claims. So, when ARRA funding started drying up in mid-2010, public sector jobs started to disappear, slowing down the recovery, especially for women.

Since July 2010, the public sector has lost 577,000 jobs—59 percent of which employed women. These public sector job losses for women have essentially wiped out 30 percent of the job gains women made in the private sector in the post-recession period (since June 2009). (See nwlc.org/resource/stronger-recovery-reaching-women.)

During the recession period (December 2007 to June 2009) LFP increased slightly for adult women but decreased for adult men. In the recovery period so far, LFP for both women and men has declined.

The EPOP for adult women dropped during the recession and through most of the recovery period but appears to have stabilized in 2012. However, the EPOP for adult men, which dropped during the recession, has yet to make a recovery.

While a smaller share of men were in the labor force as of October 2012 compared to the end of the recession (June 2009), the same share of men were employed at these two points.

The combination of the decline in the LFP rate and the steady EPOP has led to a drop in the men’s unemployment rate since the beginning of the recovery. A smaller share of women were in the labor force in October 2012 compared to the end of the recession—despite their increased participation during the recession—and the share of employed women also dropped off during the recession and recovery periods. Since the decline in women’s LFP rate was steeper than in women’s EPOP, these trends have reduced women’s unemployment rate slightly since the beginning of the recovery.


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We Can Labor With Love

Immigrant Women Inspire New Forms for Organizing

The United States remains a prevalent destination for 52 percent of the world’s migrants.[1] A majority of these migrants are women[2] from Mexico, India, China, and the Philippines[3] and many bring with them valuable knowledge gained from popular movements in their home countries.  In the United States, they soon confront a dilemma that has challenged leftist organizers doing mass-based organizing who have built membership bases within tax-exempt nonprofit corporations whose political scope is limited by law.  Migrant women have been pointing toward new solutions to the challenge and laying the groundwork we need to seriously confront the global economic interests preventing us from building a society that meets all of our needs.

One such woman is domestic worker and organizer Bernadette Herrera, who is on a mission to build a grassroots, all volunteer, membership organization of Filipino domestic workers and caregivers in San Francisco.

Herrera draws inspiration from the popular movement for National Democracy that she experienced in the Philippines. Throughout high school and college, she had worked at multiple retail and administrative jobs but her involvement in the struggle against drastic tuition fee increases got her elected president of the student council in 1984. It was during this struggle that Herrera began to recognize the fee increases as symptomatic of a deeper overall problem devastating the people of the Philippines.

“I would visit various barangay [farm] and learn from peasants how they work the land all day, then [give] at least half of all they harvest to the landlord,” she recalls. “They still have to pay for animals and the tools they rent to till the land. I also met workers on picket lines and heard how they work nonstop but cannot afford food for their family.”

Herrera went on to join the League of Filipino Students (LFS) and became a member of BAYAN, an alliance of more than a million members from over 1,000 organizations representing workers, peasants, students, women, church leaders, indigenous peoples, and professionals united in the struggle for national liberation and democracy in the Philippines.[4]  She participated in the People Power Revolution of 1983-86 that ousted the dictator Ferdinand Marcos and when President Corazon Aquino took office, the 23-year-old Herrera was appointed to the provincial board of Pampanga where for the next nine years, she helped people in the community bring their issues to the attention of the various government agencies.

But overwhelming poverty coupled with a pressing need to provide for her sick parents, three children, and 11 siblings, compelled Herrera to embark on a road frequently travelled by Filipinos who leave their country in search of work. In 2000, she came to the United States on a visitor’s visa and never left, finding work cleaning homes and caring for the elderly in San Francisco. After a lifetime of organizing mass movements and being deeply involved in the lives of workers, students, and peasants in the Philippines, Herrera found herself thrust into a life of isolation and anonymity as a domestic worker in the U.S.—until she discovered the Filipino Community Center (FCC).

Grassroots Organizing
Herrera began to volunteer at the FCC in 2007, embracing its orientation towards supporting grassroots organizations as opposed to membership-based nonprofits—much like the all-volunteer popular movements in the Philippines that she had been involved with. When she was offered a job as organizer for FCC’s Workers Rights program, she gladly took it on but continued to work at cleaning houses.

The FCC’s main work is in providing services, Herrera points out. “There is a budget, but we never know for how long,” she says. “That’s why nonprofits need mass organizations where we can build lasting strength.”

Herrera points to the model employed by domestic workers in Hong Kong, where the service-oriented nonprofit Mission for Migrant Workers (MFMW) assists domestic workers with their housing, health care, and legal needs, and helps hook them up with grassroots mass organizations, such as United Filipinos in Hong Kong (UNIFIL-HK) and the Indonesian Asosiasi Tenaga Kerja Indonesia di Hong Kong (ATKI), which are committed to the long-term politicization of their members.

FCC also provides services to workers, women, and youth. And although it provides some staff support with the base-building work, most of it is led and housed in the grassroots organizations that work with FCC, such as ALAY (youth), babae (women), Samaka (mothers), and the newly forming Migrante (caregivers and other workers). Members of the groups take up campaigns, conscious of the fact that they are the leaders of their organizations, making decisions and running programs independent of the FCC. 

The idea that grassroots movement-building should happen autonomously but in harmony with the work of nonprofit corporations or NGOs (non-governmental organizations) is commonplace in many countries outside the U.S. These movements are orientated towards sustaining themselves, not the nonprofits that support them.[5]

Service is Good but Organizing is Better
Some services, such as legal representation to stop a deportation, are absolutely necessary. But even this essential service is ultimately just a Band-aid that does not alleviate the need for a complete overhaul of the U.S. immigration system, which brutalizes and dehumanizes people.
The most direct path to fundamental change in policy is through large-scale organizing driven by the collective power of the most impacted people. It’s the will of the people, not the work of paid nonprofit employees, that’s the engine that powers the collective action of the group in any effective grassroots or volunteer-based organization.

The victories of the Civil Rights and Women’s Suffrage movements were certainly not led by nonprofit corporations funded by the 1%. A common analysis, a collective will, and unity in action were the key ingredients in those movements, which inspired millions. Without a proper analysis and political consciousness of the root cause of our suffering, and collective strategies to challenge it, we are no better off than a church choir or key club in effecting change. Without a will to organize and act, we might as well confine ourselves to academia.

Maria Poblet, executive director of Causa Justa::Just Cause (CJJC), believes that her organization has found a way to deal with the contradiction of functioning as a nonprofit corporation while actively applying certain political principles.

CJJC engages members in regular political education on a multiplicity of interconnected issues and advances strategy development rooted in the organization’s political vision—not the fundable priorities of the 1%—ensuring that capitalists, banks, and corporations are the main targets of their organizing campaigns. CJJC played a leading role within the Occupy movement to ensure that the issues of working and poor communities of color were at the center. Staff and members participated in Occupy general assemblies and helped organize key Occupy actions in the Bay Area with calls to ‘Foreclose on Wall Street West’. CJJC also helped with tactics, such as taking over foreclosed properties and using them to provide housing, libraries, workshops, and children’s activities to the community.

In Poblet’s opinion: “Given the current state of the movement and the work that needs to get done in this country, having a nonprofit is not so limiting that it should be abandoned as a tactic.”

“Eventually, when the revolutionary spirit and movement in the country get much further along, nonprofits will reach the limits of their usefulness and many people will move to other forms of organization to do the work of creating change,” she adds.

In building this “revolutionary spirit and movement” we can hone the organizational tactics, such as those outlined by Herrera, to help communities strengthen their sense of analysis, will and action, unconstrained by the nonprofit corporation form.

The Rise of the Nonprofit Corporation
The rise of charitable giving as a way for multimillionaire robber barons like John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie to defend their income from taxes began in the early 20th century.[6] Hyped by financial magazines as “tax shelter tools,” foundations for charitable giving became all the rage, forming at the rate of 1,200 per year by the early 1960s.[7] The foundations triggered a rise in the number of nonprofit corporations being set up, eager to accept their tax-deductible donations. Soon, funds that might have been paid to the government as taxes, were it not for the exemptions, began trickling back but with strings attached. Membership-based organizing around root causes was not funded and there were severe restrictions on political lobbying and support for candidates. (The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex, edited by the INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence collective is an excellent resource for a more in-depth look at the issue.)

Some nonprofits, such as CJJC, have successfully exploited the nonprofit corporation format to build a dues-paying membership, develop base leadership, and win life changing improvements in their communities. But even as we dream about a movement that truly challenges the root causes of the problems challenging our communities, we can’t help wondering if the political will to organize around that purpose will continue in the absence of funding.

Building a Movement Outside the Nonprofit
The vision of a movement that moves us all is both irresistible and palpable but we know that it cannot be done to scale within the confines of the nonprofit structure alone. It is time to set aside the mutual distrust between nonprofits and grassroots membership organizations and work instead towards a goal of harmonizing and maximizing the strengths of both to create new organizational forms to help us achieve our vision.
We can begin by rising above our egos—which makes each of us view our particular organization as the sole authority on an issue or the comprehensive voice of a community or movement—and focusing instead on exchanging lessons learnt, sharing assessments and strategy, and moving closer towards a unity of analysis. When we do, we will become an irresistible power with the capacity to grow and nurture the type of mass movement we need. Or as W.E.B. Dubois put it, we will be the “great song… the loveliest thing born this side the seas.” DuBois, of course, was talking about the coming of freedom for the Black slaves, when he said: “It was a new song and its deep and plaintive beauty, its great cadences and wild appeal wailed, throbbed and thundered on the world’s ear with a message seldom voiced by man.”[8] But the words still resonate apropos the mass movement we hope to build.

1.    Migration Policy Institute. “Top Ten Countries with the Largest Number of International Migrants.” 2010. <migrationinformation.org/datahub/charts/6.1.shtml (accessed 11/23/2012)>
2.    Ibid. “Foreign-Born Males per 100 Foreign-Born Females, for the United States: 1870 to 2010.” 2010. <migrationinformation.org/ DataHub/charts/final.malesfemales.shtml>
3.    Ibid. “Ten Source Countries with the Largest Populations in the United States as Percentages of the Total Foreign-Born Population.” 2011. <migrationinformation.org/datahub/migrant_sendingcountries.cfm>
4.    <bayan.ph/site/about/>
5.    Andrea Smith, The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex. 2007. pp.15.
6.    Ibid. “Introduction: The Revolution Will Not Be Funded,” pp.4.
7.    Ibid., pp.5.
8.     W.E.B. DuBois excerpt, as quoted by Baraka, Amiri. Digging: The Afro-American Soul of American Classical Music. University of California Press. 2009. pp.1.

Reimagine | Vol. 19, No. 2 – 2013 | Credits

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Organizing for the Rights of Filipino Women

Tina Shauf is a community organizer and youth worker. She was born in the Philippines and raised in Los Angeles county. She is currently the Chair of Babae (meaning “woman” in Tagalog), a grassroots volunteer-based organization of Filipina women in San Francisco dedicated to supporting and empowering Pinays through critical education, leadership development, and community building. Shauf is also an active member and representative of the General Assembly Binding Women for Reforms, Integrity, Education, Leadership and Action (GABRIELA-USA), a grassroots-based alliance of more than 200 organizations, institutions, and programs of women all over the Philippines seeking to wage a struggle for the liberation of all oppressed Filipino women and Filipino people in general. GABRIELA-USA is the first overseas chapter of the Philippine-based organization, extending the Filipino women’s mass movement to the United States.

Christine Joy Ferrer: What issues are Babae and GABRIELA-USA currently prioritizing? And how do they impact low-income and communities of color where you live—especially Filipina women?
Tina Shauf: We’re taking on issues in the Filipino community, for women particularly, through the Voices of Women versus Violence Against Women (iVOW) campaign. Under the GABRIELA framework, Violence Against Women is defined as seven different things, including economic exploitation, political repression, sexual abuse, and domestic violence. So it’s multifaceted.

Also, Babae is co-sponsoring the Care Project at the Filipino Community Center in San Francisco where a group of caregivers comes together to understand better the conditions under which caregivers work. All of them are immigrants; they’ve left the Philippines because they had to support their families.

Four thousand people a day leave the Philippines— 70 percent are women. A lot of the jobs they take on are domestic work, caregiving. In a room full of Filipinos, if you ask, “How many of you know a caregiver or are related to a caregiver?” most would probably raise their hand. So we see a need to take this on.

Another thing is queer rights as human rights, understanding the multiple levels of oppression of queer immigrant folks.

Ferrer: What are some of the intersections between queer and immigrant rights?
Shauf: Right now we’re in a stage of understanding where our community’s like, “How do we view LGBTQ folks in general?” and “What are the issues faced by LGBTQ folks?”

Jay Mercado and Shirley Tan, a queer couple in our community, deal with not being recognized as a family even though they have twin boys and they’ve been together over 25 years.

A lesbian woman who leaves her country because she was in danger and has to go somewhere else to look for work—that clearly is a typical immigrant, but as a queer immigrant, she’s not even recognized as a mom to her kids.

Ferrer: How has Babae used iVOW and the Care Project to confront the challenges that all these different groups face and help them secure their rights?
Shauf: It’s been about three years since we took on iVOW as our national campaign. Initially we made it more of an educational campaign: around violence against women, domestic violence, the different forms of oppression, and the root causes. We hope to continue raising consciousness to political action based on our findings in each of the GABRIELA-USA—areas.

The hope is that our membership is inspired to continue organizing and will bring more people. And that they understand the reason we face these issues (whether we were born here or in the Philippines) is because our ancestors lived in a colonized country. On paper, it’s not colonized (now), but it’s run by imperialist powers, multinational corporations, and a corrupt government that exploits the land and people. That’s the reason why people leave.

The work is not just, “let’s push for these issues to be corrected.” It’s, “let’s understand the deeper causes.” Where’s the empowerment? Where do we have agency?

Ferrer: How has your Filipino identity and the fact that you’re a queer woman transformed and influenced your work?
Shauf: I think my work as an organizer has helped me unfold as a person. I’ve been able to come out. I’ve been able to understand the layers of oppression—not just as a Filipino, but as a woman—the need to fight for rights, to encourage other women to do the same.
I’ve learned I can’t just wait for things to change. If I understand it affects me and other women, whether we’re Filipino or another race, we have to come up with solutions by understanding causes. No one else is going to do it for us.

Ferrer: Going back to women’s issues, at the Global Women’s Rights Forum in March 2012, you spoke on a panel about transnational feminism and women in movements, uprisings, and revolutions. You raise a challenging question: Why is there a need for transnational movements? If things are moving in the Philippines, why even bother here in the U.S.?
Shauf: There’s a need for organizing outside the Philippines because 4,000 Filipinos leave every day. Why do people leave? Exploitative conditions. The people are not being prioritized. There are not enough jobs. The rising cost of basic needs like oil and rice. Services are going down. Services were pretty shitty to being with, but now it’s being slashed even more. There’s a need for movement building outside the Philippines because people can’t live in those conditions.

They had requested me to talk about a reproductive health bill in the Philippines, which we don’t do a lot of work on here. GABRIELA Women’s Party cowrote the bill. Basically, it’s pushing for comprehensive reproductive health care. The Philippines doesn’t have comprehensive health care. Less than two percent of the budget goes to health for 90 million people.

What’s important with this bill—it’s a way to highlight how women are viewed in Filipino society; to heighten the contradictions. Women’s reproductive health is not valued. So it affects the way we view ourselves.

When GABRIELA Women’s Party puts out legislation, whether it’s passed or not, what matters is it’s reaching the masses. People are starting to understand [what] we don’t have. We don’t have regular checkups when we are pregnant even though there’s a high need.

The largest income in the Philippines is remittances. When people leave, they have to send money home to support their families. Migrants are in over 196 countries, including the U.S. When they come to these receiving countries, the Philippine government does not protect them, so they’re victims of trafficking, exploitation, and wage theft. The Care Project is one way to understand that in a deeper and more personal way because it’s happening here, in our city.

Ferrer: What are the connections between local struggles and global struggles that can empower our communities for both the immediate and long term?

Shauf: There’s a reason why there are so many Filipinos all over the world. There should have been more of a choice. People should be able to [stay] if they choose, but that’s not the case. I think that is really key in understanding why we need to do movement-building here in the Unites States and other places.

Christine Joy Ferrer is the web and design editor for RP&E and founder of eyesopenedblog.com.


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Women's Work

By Selma James

The Wages for Housework Campaign has always spelled out the connection between the unwaged and invisible work of women, and the work, waged and unwaged, of immigrants, women and men. We also insisted that those of us who are immigrants, wherever we come from and wherever we go, are attacking the racism and provincialism carefully nurtured among every working class, by bringing another world—usually the Third World—with us into metropolitan centers.

 One side of immigration, we said, is that it is an element of State planning—using immigrants to undercut wages, working conditions, and living standards won by the native working class and to disorganize resistance. The other side is how immigrants—as much those from Malaga in southern Spain as those from Port of Spain in Trinidad—use immigration as a method of re-appropriating their own wealth, stolen from them at home and accumulated in the industrial metropolis. Immigrants are in Britain not for the weather but for the wealth, much of which has been produced by their own and their ancestors’ labor. That wealth is as much theirs by right as it is of those whose history of exploitation has never left Britain.

The work of women is basic, first, to organizing for themselves and others to become immigrants, and then to transforming their communities from victims of the State plan into a network of reappropriators. But like most unwaged women’s work, that work is hidden.

The First Quantification of Women’s Work  
The International Labour Organization’s (ILO) report that women do two-thirds of the world’s work, earn 5 percent of the income, and own 1 percent of the assets should end the great debate within the women’s movement about why we are (or could be) together as women despite a thousand differences.[1]  The work and the poverty of women and our struggle against both constitute the material basis of the women’s movement and what we had always claimed is the basis of women’s relation to capital—women’s exploitation. It’s the first quantification of sexism; a tangible measure of just how ripped off women are internationally.[2] Such a quantification is a weapon against the work. One way to refuse it is to refuse to let it go on unnoticed. We began to publicize the ILO figures.

From the perspective of women’s work, all issues are transformed. Take immigration. How much work do women do to make immigration possible, to make possible the rebuilding of the community in a new town, city, country: among other races; speaking other languages; with different foods, dress, customs, education, religions, hierarchies? What is the hidden cost—hidden because women pay it and are not paid for doing it—when the family and community have to confront and survive the economic and social consequences of racism; especially when the woman on whom survival depends may be under attack herself within her own community?

Sex, Race and Class
From a Speech by Selma James

Selma James, a woman’s rights and anti-racist campaigner and author, coined the term “unwaged” to describe the caring work women do. That word has since entered the English lexicon to describe all who work without wages on the land, in the home, and in the community. During 1958-62 James worked with C. L. R. James in the movement for Caribbean Federation and Independence and in 1972, founded the International Wages for Housework campaign, which demands money from the State for unwaged work in the home and community. She is the coauthor (with Mariarosa Dalla Costa) of “The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community”—an argument for women’s unwaged work to be seen as the true backbone of a market economy. In 1975, James became the first spokeswoman for the English Collective of Prostitutes, which pushes for decriminalisation of prostitution, sex workers’ right to recognition and safety, and financial alternatives for those forced into prostitution by poverty. James also helped launch Global Women’s Strike, an international grassroots network with the motto: “Invest in caring, not killing.” —CC

Many years ago, some of us put forward the view that women were absolutely central to capitalist production because the work we did created the whole working class, which Marx calls labor power.

The work of reproduction of the human race is not a small matter although neglected by the market because it doesn’t have to pay very much. This unwaged condition is not merely the weakness of women in relation to men in a society where wages dominate, but also one where unwaged women in Africa can grow 80 percent of the food and still not be considered “working” within the economy.

The international market has benefited greatly from this work, especially the work of immigrants, which expresses precisely the power relations between a waged and an unwaged economy. These workers are produced at an even lower cost than the locals because the education and healthcare are not paid for.

Women have had to struggle really very hard for survival, so they became the poorer sex. When the UN said that women do 2/3 of the world’s work—and work twice as hard as men—it not only contradicted every single economic statistic quantifying labor and economic contribution, it also quantified sexism. It is the foundation of a power relation which results in all kinds of indignities and exploitation, the most obvious of which is pay inequity.

Pay Equity and Feminist Politics
One of the things that has always bothered me about the women’s movement is that when women who work in industry or a job outside the home are asked what they want, their first priority overwhelmingly is pay equity. But if you cast your mind to the feminist campaigns since the late 1960s, the ones that hit the headlines, attract the crowds, and are well-financed are for abortion rights!

I am not a lunatic. I do believe that women should have control of their own bodies and have the right not to have children, or to have the children they want. The fact that women get abortions sometimes when they don’t have the money to have the full-term pregnancy, or that sometimes they have children they don’t want and are impoverished by it—all of that is based on how much money is available to women. Without question, women need the right to have abortions when they so choose. But if women say that they want pay equity, it seems to me that anybody who calls themselves a feminist should be fighting for that, and not primarily for abortion rights. In fact, if you have pay equity, you can get your own abortion. You have the money to do it.

Why Movements Lose Their Edge
Every single movement for change, including feminism, has thrown up people who inspire or become heads of NGOs, or members of large corporations, or proud members of government (think Condoleezza Rice and Hilary Clinton). They’ve risen to the top not by overthrowing the state so much as by joining it, and when we make demands against the powers that be, we are often facing people from our own movements.

A second thing that’s happened is that a lot of the movements have turned into NGOs and are no longer directed against the powers that be. Rather, they are directed at ameliorating the situation and making jobs for the people involved. Hence, it seems to me that the reason why abortion and not pay equity has been the focus of feminists has to do with funding priorities.

A third thing is competition. I wrote Sex, Race and Class to deal with what I saw as a real problem in the ‘70s and continues to be a problem today—the competition between movements about who is the most exploited and therefore should get the job. In each of the movements—feminist, black, disability, lesbian—there is room at the top that we all have to compete for. Sex, Race and Class tried to make it clear that there was a hierarchy of labor powers that had to do with gender, race, nationality, language, and other inequalities. We are pinned to these categories and have to destroy the whole hierarchy, not just one part of it. It is in our collective interest to look closely at the position of other sectors of the working class to see if we can work together to form a unified movement on the basis of each of us organizing autonomously.

This speech was adapted from a panel moderated by Chris Carlsson, who introduced the speakers.
It was recorded at Counterpulse by Shaping San Francisco in March 2012.

Such questions begin to drag out of the shadows the mountain of work, which has defined women’s condition, as well as the mountain of work that is assigned to immigrants, particularly if we are Black, always if we are women. For though as women we share overwork and poverty, yet race, immigration and other divides determine what kind of work we do—how much, under what circumstances, and for what returns.

While the UN figures only quantify sexual division of labor, there is also a racial division of labor, an immigrant/native division of labor, and so on, which are rarely quantified. In fact, every division among us expresses the division of labor—the quantity of work and the wages (or lack thereof) mapped out for each sector. Depending upon who we are—the combination of sex, race, age, nationality, physical dis/ability, and so on—we are pushed into one or other niches that seem to be our natural destiny rather than our job. To allow even one aspect of our identity to be denied by anyone—which they do to hide the power relation between us and them—is to allow them to falsify or obscure our social position and our workload.

Work Shapes Women’s Relationships
Within the self-proclaimed women’s movement, our unwaged work on the land and in the kitchen is hardly a concern for many feminists. The same is true for most political men of every hue and complexion. Neither group includes the tortuous two-thirds of the world’s work in their definitions of either sexual or racial violence, though it is both.

Work is not just another issue, one of many ingredients of “oppression,” one item on a list of grievances that add up to women’s inferior position. It’s not just one branch of a blighted tree where each branch has equal claim to treatment in the cause of liberation. Work—the activity women and men are forced to perform to survive—is the essence of capitalism, which must be destroyed root and branch. This work is what saps our time and our energy, which happen to be our life. Work confines us, defines us, and shapes our relationships. For women, to the degree that the work we do is to care for, nurture, train, and nourish others, physically and socially, work is also our relationships. Because work is how we spend our lives and how we relate, work shapes our consciousness of ourselves and of each other.

Rosie the Riveter, 1942. Courtesy of the blackhistoryalbum.comWomen are seen as naturally low-waged or unwaged servants by men, by society, starting with our own children. The work we do is the essence of our slavery and neglecting women’s work has wide implications for every aspect of struggle. For example, without a quantification of women’s work, the case against imperialism, multinationals, and the military-industrial complex, has a basic weakness, a tragic flaw. Why they conquer, what they steal, who they exploit and how much—in the factory, farm, and family, are an incomplete reckoning at best. At worst, such a false reckoning conceals the most bitter truths about one of the two sexes, about the relations between men and women, and about every aspect of politics and economics.

Immigrant Women are Vital to the Labor Force
The neglect of immigrants’ work, but immigrant women’s work in particular, is a basic weakness of every anti-deportation campaign. The movement has often made the case that because most immigrants are of “working age,” those of us who are immigrants contribute more to the economy per capita than natives, who tend to be older; and that they are doing jobs the natives have refused to do. This is true, but it postdates our contribution.
In 1978, three immigrant women’s organizations together led the Child Benefit For All campaign to try to prevent the loss of child benefit to immigrant parents whose children were not with them in Britain. The £70 million a year was to be denied to parents who had already been denied their children by immigration procedures and racism. A basic premise of the campaign was that immigrants have always been working for Britain—first in the colonies and ex-colonies, and then in Britain itself—and that work roots the claim for the right to stay and for rights to the Welfare State, not in abstract justice only but in very concrete debts outstanding. Once this work and pain are highlighted, we . . . see that we are owed far more than we owe.[3]
Women’s unwaged work all over the world has produced this army of immigrants. While housework everywhere is consuming and endless, in the Third World it is generally accomplished without running water, State health care, education, or welfare. Immigrant women came to metropolitan countries precisely to refuse this housework.

Many generations of Third World women have paid heavily so that Britain and other metropolitan countries could have a reserve labor force ready and waiting in the wings, so to speak, for when it is needed. That poorer nations subsidize richer ones by exporting immigrant labor power has been noted before. But that it is women’s unwaged work in Third World conditions of economic and technological poverty that has produced this labor power, which is a subsidy extracted specifically from women by international capital, is rarely if ever noted. The State never mentions the work on which it has been so dependent. And neither, in general, does the movement. That women are seen as appendages of men in immigration legislation and threatened with deportation if they lose that connection is directly attributable to the invisibility of their work. It is vital, therefore, that the economic and social foundations laid by our unwaged housework, field work, community work, office work, and much more, in every society, finally be acknowledged.

Make Women’s Unwaged Work Part of GDP
Women’s unwaged work appears nowhere in any country’s gross national product (now called the gross domestic product), which is supposed to quantify the total amount of a country’s goods and services. Those who claim to lead us in the struggle against exploitation, including trade unions, seem just as reticent to mention the two-thirds we do, the 5 percent we are given for it, and the mere 1 percent of assets we own. Women’s unwaged work? Hard. Maybe even tragic. But marginal. Unproductive. They should get a job. And so, women (and children) who bear the burden of this work and this poverty are omitted from every consideration of entitlement. Dismissed as much by militant antisexists as by militant anticapitalists and antiracists, and even by those who pride themselves that they are all three.

In dismissing or ignoring the ILO figures, two-thirds of the case against capitalism, sexism, and the racist, imperialist patriarchy is lost; as is two-thirds of the proof that there is a material basis for sisterhood, a basis for common struggle as women and as workers internationally. In particular, the day-to-day struggle of Black women to cut down on this work, and where it is unavoidable, to get it done and still survive remains largely invisible and unrecognized.

1.    Women at Work, International Labor Office Newsbulletin, Geneva, no. 1 (1980). The two-thirds figure originated in this journal.
2.    Capitalist society turns everything, including human skills and abilities, into commodities whose value is quantified on a price tag or in a wage. The degree to which we are exploited is meticulously planned and constantly measured and evaluated in stock exchanges, banks, boardrooms, cabinet meetings—even at foxhunts, over dinner, and for all we know, in bed. In general, men do not work as hard as women. The differences in amount of work, income, and degree of exploitation are quantifiable—so  we can measure not only how much we lose but what we can win and frame our demands accordingly. (As a strategy, quantification began with Marx, whose early work described the effects of exploitation and later work quantified this exploitation.)
3.    Francis Solveig. “Until Women Have Spoken.” Introduction to Black Women: Bringing It All Back Home,  Falling Wall Press, 1980.

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Women's Movement Legacy — Antidote to Despair

Interview with Dorothy Kidd
By B. Jesse Clarke

Dorothy Kidd's work appears regularly in the academic, popular left, and social movement press. A professor at the department of Media Studies at the University of San Francisco, she has been organizing at the interface of the community and university for 13 years. A media and feminist activist since the early 1970s, she has been producing media, studying the role of the dominant corporate media, and circulating accounts about radical alternative media since that time. She was interviewed in the studios of Radio RP&E.

B. Jesse Clarke: Women’s rights to equal pay, health care, and even contraception were under attack in the 2012 election campaigns. What isn’t much discussed is where and when these rights were won.  What were feminist activists struggling for in the ‘60s and ‘70s? What were the issues, and how were they pushing to bring equal rights to women?
Dorothy Kidd: The first thing to say is that there wasn’t a uniform feminist movement. The feminist movement that my students read about is the movement of professional and business women to get seats at the table with the ruling class and large corporations. To some degree they’ve succeeded, so we see more women in boardrooms, more women in politics. (Not as much here as in Europe, Canada, or Australia, but progress has been made.) That was not the aim of the women’s groups I was involved in in the ‘60s and ‘70s.

It was to get recognition for the work that women were already doing—in their homes [raising the next generation], in the community [making the community sustainable, livable], and in the political sphere.

We wanted people to recognize that not only was economic value created by people in waged jobs, but also by unwaged jobs, in what we called the larger “social factory.”

Clarke: Could you give us a summary of some of the major social institutions that were created in that period?
Kidd: Overall, we were making an argument for equal rights for all people, regardless of race and class. Some of the key points we were working toward: explaining that welfare was not something just for needy people but a recognition of the work that women did in the home raising the future generation; extending post secondary education to working class people and having bridging programs for mothers specifically so that they could go to university; expanding afterschool care programs—which women could no longer do at home when they were becoming a bulwark of the waged economy.

In fact, my mother and her generation had fought for daycare. At that time, women did this work for free and it was considered that they were doing it for individual families. My mother’s generation argued, “That’s not true. We’re contributing to the whole society by providing childcare and we should get proper wages and support, so that it is quality daycare, not just institutional warehousing of children.”
One of the other things we were organizing for was domestic workers to be considered as workers.

Clarke: To this day, domestic labor is still excluded from many labor law protections. Can you talk about the relationships between immigrant women doing domestic work and women’s subordination in the domestic and economic sphere?
Kidd: Women were expected to do all of the nurturing and educational work in the family for free, no matter what their class level. In the ’60s and ’70s, another campaign was for nurses to be recognized as professional workers. Before that, they were just considered high society volunteers who did it on the side.

That affects immigrant women because a lot of them came from the Caribbean or the Philippines with nursing training, and they were not given proper wages. They were not considered trained people, just immigrants with domestic skills. So there’s been a whole campaign for nurses and health care workers that continues today. There are strikes every year in San Francisco of nurses and health care workers. In fact, for the last 30 to 40 years, nurses and health care workers have probably been some of the best organized workers in the United States. Nonetheless, they are still arguing with the false premise that women should do this work for free; or [that] immigrant women should do it for less money.

Clarke: In 2012, California Governor Jerry Brown refused to sign the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights. When it came time to lay out the cuts to the California state budget, homecare services were at the top of the list.

Kidd: And to the degree that unions and other social movements are not supporting the campaigns of domestic workers and nurses as frontline campaigns, all of us are going to be affected.

Clarke: Do you see a way to make that clear so that women can advance their economic interests in that context?
Kidd: Yes. I would like to turn the debate right on its head and talk more about who’s creating value, and how society’s run, and how we are going to survive. If we started talking about the contribution not only of women but women and men in creating social relationships that are sustainable—an earth that is sustainable—then we can talk specifically about the historic struggles that women, whether they’re organized in women’s movements or within community organizations, have been waging to do just that.
That’s partly what we were trying to do in the ‘70s and it’s still going on.

Clarke: Talk about the way in which domestic violence and social violence against women—for instance, calling some kinds of rape “legitimate”—have been submerged and made invisible. Can you take us back to the origins of women’s organizing against violence in the ‘60s and ‘70s?
Kidd: One way was talking about our experiences of harassment, our experiences of things that were not even recognized as violence against women.

Let me just remind people: “date rape” did not exist as a concept. Nor did rape in marriage. Or the fact that women are systematically violated as an act of war.

It took women talking with one another and recognizing that we share these experiences—they were not just individual violations and we needed to speak about them. We needed to pressure institutions to support women who have been violated, with battered women’s services and rape relief services. We needed to push lawyers, particularly feminist lawyers, because [they were] the only ones who would take on the cases.

We needed to work with teachers to be able to talk to children about this, so that students grew up knowing that they didn’t need to deal with that kind of harassment. We needed to go to the international court, as some women did in the early 1990s, and argue that violence against women at war was a crime.

So we were shifting not only the laws and regulations, we were shifting very fundamental concepts about what it meant to be safe and without violence against you, and we were creating institutions that supported that.

Clarke: To bring it back to economic justice and women, can you talk about where you see hope for that?
Kidd: To me, one of the most important struggles at this point is around domestic workers, for several reasons.

One, they make clear the relationship that is still superimposed, not just on women, but on immigrants, which is that your work supporting society and your community is part of your love, or part of your culture, and therefore, you do it for free. We don’t have to recognize it. And domestic workers, who are overwhelmingly from immigrant backgrounds, say, “That’s a lie! We make society function. If it wasn’t for us, you with the bigger incomes wouldn’t be able to go to work and make the big bucks. We make it possible for you to do that.” That’s one of the most important campaigns going on.

Secondly, to the degree that domestic workers do not have proper wages and are not recognized, it becomes even more possible for ideologues, whether they’re liberal or rightwing, to say, “Oh well, the rest of you can just share austerity. We’re going through fiscal cutbacks and all of us are going to have to tighten our belts,” which is the argument that’s been made for the last 30 or 40 years to make our society work.

So, to the degree that there’s a class of people systemically being told that, the rest of us are subject to that kind of blackmail.

Thirdly, the organizing networks the domestic workers have established are exemplary. [They are working collaboratively] with unionized workers, who don’t necessarily work very well with people fighting around almost unwaged situations. That kind of alliance is important, especially in a period when trade unions represent only 10 percent of the workforce.

Also, they are drawing on the diaspora and getting support from organizations throughout Central America. For me, who’s done communications all my life, it’s also exemplary because they’re using every form of communication: testimonials, storytelling, video analyses, all of those kinds of things. They’re appealing to people not just through their head, but their heart.

Yes, they’ve been turned back at the Sacramento legislature by the governor’s veto but that’s not stopping the campaign because it’s going on from individual homes, where domestics work, to different state legislatures, to Washington, D.C., to considerations with domestic workers in other countries.

It’s a political and an economic campaign; also a social one. I’m sure we’ll find that the connections individual domestic workers make with other domestic workers is probably one of the most profound lessons. As Silvia Federici has said, it is domestic workers who are modeling how to occupy the streets. If you go out during the day to a public park or a cafe, you will see women, mostly brown women with white babies, hanging out together. They’ve provided the visual image of how we can take back the street, the park. So there’s a lot to be learned.

Clarke: Memory and imagination. Amnesia and despair. It seems to me that the antidote to despair about the future is not to forget the past because then you really are isolated in a present where you seem to be powerless. It’s important to remember the powerful moments of the past as a guide towards imagining a positive future.  In closing, any lessons you can share?
Kidd: I learned how important it was to get into experiences that were uncomfortable—to deal with power differences between me as a white, middle class person and other people I was working with. I learned that some differences could be bridged, at least temporarily, through working together and that was a profound hopefulness.

The second thing I learned was, I was lucky to have parents with another generation of experience before me who could say, “Why do you think you are unique? We were doing that in the ‘30s.” And I remind myself not to say it in the same tone when I’m speaking with my students, but this voice is there saying, “Speak to them about the antecedents, about the experiences that you know were successful, and the important lessons. And that progress is not linear. We go through waves.” Failure experiences are probably as important as successes but we continually need to rehearse our past.

The thing that I think is much more profound now—that we didn’t have in the ‘70s, ‘80s, or ‘90s, is this idea that all of us have stories we need to share with one another. One of the advantages of the Occupy movement is that they got that. They weren’t trying to spin the best story to the media. They were saying, “We’re not going to have an NGO spokesperson or a movement spokesperson tell you about it. You have to talk to each of us.”

Reimagine | Vol. 19, No. 2 – 2013 | Credits

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Nurses Organize to Defend Patient and Worker Rights

By Karina Muniz

When it comes to organizing for health care as a human right, nurses far more often than doctors, are taking the lead in advocating for their patients. Nurses organizing gave us legislation to protect women who were able to stay longer in the hospital after giving birth; mandated registered nurse-to-patient ratios; improved protections for women survivors of domestic violence; and are at the forefront of many battles for better access to health care.

Every day, at the medical facilities where they work, nurses are first hand witnesses to health care practices that put profit above quality of care. Increasingly, hospital stays are cut short and essential medical procedures denied for cost reasons. Patients are removed for nonpayment of bills and services considered necessary are cut, even as the patient-to-staff ratios rise to dangerous levels.

So, it’s not surprising that nurses are at the frontlines of the battle for a more equitable and fair health care system, speaking out for the people’s right to access quality care and the rights of healthcare workers to do their jobs effectively.

While the reelection of President Obama and the 2012 Supreme Court ruling on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act both carry the promise of imminent healthcare reform, it’s not at all clear that it’s moving in the right direction.

Patient Rights Linked to Worker Rights
As a workforce, nurses have found it necessary to link the protection of patients’ rights to their own rights as workers because their struggles within a capital driven system often parallel the struggle of workers in other industries, but the scope of who is affected by their advocacy is very broad. We all need access to good quality health care and a unionized workforce has stronger political power to make those policy changes happen.

The California Nurses Association (CNA) represents over 80,000 RNs in more than 200 hospitals. They have a powerful voice in Sacramento and have been active in campaigns, such as the RN Safe Staffing Ratio law implemented in 2004, which research shows has helped reduce patient deaths and assured nurses of more time to spend with patients. The CNA is currently fighting to expand Medicare and implement single payer healthcare, and is also pushing for a Robinhood tax on Wall Street Trades—estimated to generate $350 million per year in revenue for the state.[1]

“When we say we’re advocates, we take it beyond the walls of the hospital and our patients’ bedside out to the streets,” says Liz Jacobs, communications director of the CNA. “We have to put on our sneakers, pick up the picket signs, and get our voices heard. Shutting down medical facilities and cutting service affects the community at large.”

Corporatization Spurs Organizing
Nurses have not always had this kind of political presence. As a predominantly female workforce—although there is a growing number of male nurses in the field—nurses were among the lowest paid professionals just over a generation ago. But the CNA has been able to turn that perception around and nurses today are recognized as public service workers. Licensed nurses—both Licensed Vocational Nurses (LVN) and Registered Nurses (RN)—constitute the single largest occupational group in the health care industry.[2]

“It used to be that unions were all about Teamsters and blue collar workers, but nurses are out there protesting as well,” says Jacobs. “We are an activist organization, even though patient care never stops.”

In the mid 1990s, large corporate hospital chains began buying out local community facilities, eliminating the local hospital boards that were accountable to the community. The corporatization of health care meant that hospitals were now accountable to stockholders[3] and suddenly, the length of a hospital stay became contingent upon an insurance company’s willingness to pay instead of on the patient’s need. Looking to boost their bottom line, hospitals began to view workers as a cost in need of cutting, and massive layoffs ensued, followed by restructuring. And more and more, health care facilities—hospitals, labs, outpatient facilities, and elder care institutions—were staffed by foreign-trained nurses with temporary work visas.

“The nurses that were left were responsible for sicker patients who were in the hospital for less time,” explained Jacobs of CNA. “RNs started leaving hospitals because they couldn’t provide safe care. They were going against their profession and what they were trained to do. So you had a perfect storm for nurses to organize.”

Medical Redlining
St. Luke’s Hospital in San Francisco’s Mission District is a classic example of a nonprofit being run on a for-profit model. It was purchased by California Pacific Medical Center (CPMC), a Sutter Health affiliate, which subsequently announced plans to shut it down at its current location and open a new 555-bed, 1 million square foot facility at Van Ness Avenue and Geary Boulevard on Cathedral Hill for an estimated $2.5 billion. Advocates for St. Luke’s want to know why the hospital is moving to north of Market Street where there are already seven other facilities.

The answer is fairly straightforward: the majority of St. Luke’s patients are the working poor on Medi-Cal and don’t have a voice. (Studies show that hospitals catering to Medi-Cal recipients have reduced inpatient care and increased outpatient surgery to cut down costs.[4]) Like San Francisco General Hospital, the only other South of Market facility, St. Luke’s caters to an underserved population, specifically the Spanish-speaking population of San Francisco, which it has been serving since its inception.
Sutter Health has a reputation for buying up hospitals, closing them down, and reopening them as ‘boutique facilities’[5] in the more affluent neighborhoods.

It’s a form of medical redlining, according to Jane Sandoval, an RN at St. Luke’s for 27 years.[6] A Filipina American raised in the Mission, she was catapulted into advocacy over the fight to keep St. Luke’s open. Sandoval sees the hospital as a vital part of the neighborhood and considers the patients an extension of the community at large. Cuts in services and ultimately, the shutting down of the hospital for more affluent aspirations would mean that the patients—who are also Mission residents—have once again been discarded in favor of an affluent clientele.

“There is an assumption that as Asian women, we are not going to speak up, but we need to speak for the unspoken,” Sandoval says.

Also, in the current economic climate where many in the trades are out of work, Sutter Health has been pairing up with some of the more male-dominated trades and pitting them against the female-dominated nursing profession, she claims.
“[The trades] have argued for the project to be built,” Sandoval says. “They say they need their jobs. Well, we need our jobs too!”

St. Luke’s Failure Means Success for Sutter Health
CPMC had an agreement with the San Francisco Mayor’s Office that it would spend $300 million to rebuild a reduced but updated version of St. Luke’s on condition that its operating margin for the hospital not drop below 1 percent for two consecutive years. But documents leaked just before a San Francisco Board of Supervisors vote on the matter revealed that Sutter was considering an option to purposely drive down the hospital’s bottom line to trigger the escape clause and close St. Luke’s earlier than expected.[7]

“It’s a common tactic when they are running numbers,” notes Sandoval about the clause that incentivizes failure. “People’s lives are affected by the commoditization of health care.”

Sutter Health calls itself a not-for-profit organization and claims that unlike investor-owned health care systems, it reinvests money left over after employees and bills have been paid into health care.[8] What it does not reveal on its website is how much it pays its top level employees. Both CNA and the National Nurses Union (NNU) have noted that Sutter profits have reached $3.7 billion since 2005. Based on its 990 filings for 2009, Sutter paid CEO Pat Fry $39,992,642 and Vice President David Drucker, $2,535,081.[9]

As of last summer, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee has put CPMC on notice that if Sutter Health does not keep St. Luke’s open in the Mission for another 20 years as originally promised, there would be no deal for the new development.

Nurses Keep Hospital Open, Sutter Retaliates
When the nurses secured their first major political victory in forcing Sutter Health to keep St. Luke’s open, the hospital chain tried to retaliate. Chris Hanks, a former director of Critical Care Services at CPMC, said in a declaration that he was told on a number of occasions, “not to hire any Filipinos.”

In 2010, a class action grievance was filed against Sutter/CPMC on behalf of the nurses, and CNA held a press conference where nurses and former nursing supervisors spoke about their first hand experience with the issue.[10]

A U.S. model of nursing in the Philippines has a long history. Western medicine’s so-called “power to heal” was used in part to justify colonialism. In the terms of the day, it was the “white man’s burden” to address the “suffering” among Filipinos (labeled as unsanitary and diseased), warranting U.S. colonial medical intervention, and giving the U.S. “righteous purpose” in the surveillance of their island.[11]

The fact that, among nurse-sending countries, the largest outflow of nurses is from the Philippines cannot be disconnected from this history. Today, as U.S. corporate wealth accumulates, push/pull migration factors remain steady. Nurses trained in the Philippines and here on temporary work visas face an even greater risk of exploitation.

Nurses have fought hard to have their voices heard. They, along with the LVNs, nurse’s aides, and other health care workers have been doing the heavy lifting in terms of keeping health care in the community.

On November 1 this year, over 3,000 RNs, along with several hundred respiratory, X-ray, and other technicians, held a one-day strike against seven Sutter hospitals in Alameda, Contra Costa, and Solano counties in response to reductions in patient care protections and nurses’ contract standards.[12]

Nursing, even though better paid than it was in previous generations, still remains women’s work. In many ways, the profession and its unions give a foretaste of what a caring social order could look like.  But sadly, under U.S. law, the bottom line remains the “terms and conditions” of employment, and the nurses’ power to set the agenda for a larger debate about health care and worker rights is an uphill struggle.

The fight goes on.

1.    <nationalnursesunited.org/affiliates/entry/101-stafffing>
2.    Joanne Spetz, Jordan Rickles, Wendy Dyer, Laurie Hailer, and Paul Ong. “California’s Nursing Labor Force: Demand, Supply and Shortages.” The Center for the Health Professions, University of California, San Francisco. 2008.
3.    Interview with Liz Jacobs. 10/29/12.
4.     Ibid.
5.    Hospitals that cater primarily to insured populations with a focus on profitable and elective procedures over emergency or other essential medical services are refered to as “boutique facilities.”
6    Interview with Jane Sandoval. 10/30/12.
7.    <sfgate.com/bayarea/matier-ross/article/Mayor-Ed-Lee-ups-ante-to-keep-St-Luke-s-open-3692115.php>
8.     </www.sutterhealth.org/about/>
9.    <nationalnursesunited.org%2Fpage%2F-%2Ffiles%2Fpdf%2Fflyers%2Fsutter-ceo-pay-092011.pdf>
10.    <nationalnursesunited.org/blog/entry/you-are-not-to-hire-any-filipinos>
11.    Catherine Ceniza Choy. “Empire of Care: Nursing and Migration in Filipino American History.” North Carolina. Duke University Press, 2003.
12.    Spetz, et al. “California’s Nursing Labor Force: Demand, Supply and Shortages.”

Karina is a freelance writer and political director of Mujeres Unidas y Activas.


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