Thursday, May 24, 2007

Review: Women Challenging Unions

[Linda Briskin and Patricia McDermott, eds. Women Challenging Unions: Feminism, Democracy, and Militancy. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993.]

I think it was reading snippets of a book by Esther Newton, a pioneering anthropologist of queer spaces in North America, that I came across her remark that she had been scolded for using the concept of "sensibility" in her work. Her reply was that she would switch to some other term if anyone came up with something that captured what she meant as effectively.

Generally speaking, with the things that I think and write about, I have not had much need of the concept of "sensibility" or any substitute, so when I read those words by Newton I had an intellectual idea of what "sensibility" meant but not really a feel for how I might use it. However, shortly after that I had the opportunity to see a few episodes of a particular children's show that I had never seen before, and I was struck with the sense that here, indeed, I was witnessing a bona fide sensibility. I'm not sure how others might define such a thing, but I would understand it to mean a multifaceted and complex collection of choices given coherence through a shared aesthetic feel.

There is lots worth saying about Women Challenging Unions for itself, but one thing that struck me in reading the book was that it exhibited a particular and very familiar sensibility consistent with its origins. It has to do with originating in a hybrid space somewhere in between older, established social movements and academia, I think. This is not a space that has "sold out" or is disconnected from the movements it claims to talk with/for/about in any simple sense -- it is partisan about its movements of origin and uses those movements as starting points for determining its orientation and assessing its success, and it reserves the right to engage in good, old fashioned boosterism here and there, as well as criticism of dominant practices in those movements from more progressive positions. But not only have negotiations been made with the requirements of academia, which sets some bounds on what gets talked about and how, but those negotiations were far enough in the past that the edges have worn off and it all feels kind of natural. I don't mean this to come across as a dimissal of a book that talks about important issues and has important insights to offer, just to give my impression of the feel of the book and the boundaries that implies for its politics and contents.

I want to get past my main political criticism of the book right away. Particularly given that I recently reread this book by Himani Bannerji, which in one section talks about this very sort of problem with this very sort of book, I felt very conscious of the inadequacies of the current book in terms of how it deals with racism and how it relates the category "women of colour" to the category "women". Its editors and many of its authors obviously know the political importance of figuring that question out, and this sense of urgency shows, but it just doesn't happen in any consistent and rigorous way -- basically, gender and patriarchy are treated as fundamental features of social organization, whereas race and white supremacy's presence in the text, despite occasional specific mentions to the contrary, is effectively in a frame of "difference" without integrated attention to how those things have organized the lives of white women and women of colour (and white and racialized men) as workers and as a activists in the labour movement. Discussion of whiteness and its associated privilege is particularly absent.

That said, there is a great deal to learn from this book, even though it is fifteen years old. As always in collections of this sort the quality and interest of the particular essays varies a lot, but there were three sorts of essays in the book that I particularly liked.

One sort was essays that talked about the ways in which deeply integrated features of the social organization of workplaces and of the labour movement itself play important roles in perpetuating the oppression of women in both sorts of spaces. Judy Fudge, for example, writes about the ways in which aspects of labour law that are gender neutral on the surface work to the disadvantage of women, in particular the ways in which traditional Canadian labour law practices around determining "natural" bargaining units are not suitable for the kinds of workplaces in which women disproportionately work, resulting in fewer unionized women and weaker bargaining units. Anne Forest's essay is a stinging rebuke of the academic field of "industrial relations" and its refusal to treat gender as an axis upon which social power is organized, including many of the "New Left" labour historians who emerged in the 1970s and who have probably written some of the things that most of us who try to learn about Canada's labour history have read. Karen Messing and Donna Mergler write about the ways in which gendered occupational segregation and sexist ideologies about occupational health and safety have combined to make it very difficult to get governments and many unions to treat seriously occupational health and safety hazards that are particular to "women's work". And Pat Armstrong destabilizes what can sometimes seem as "natural" ways in which workplace oriented collective entities come together and function by talking about the competing tensions that professionalization and unionization have had on how nurses stand up for themselves, and how neither model exactly fits the needs of nurses or of service sector workers (who are disproportionately women) more broadly.

The second group of essays that particularly interested me talked about the importance of separate organizing -- that is, the role that organizing by women as women in the context of workplaces and the labour movement has had in advancing the interests of women workers. Actually, my feelings about these essays were mixed. On the one hand, I think separate and autonomous organizing is an absolutely crucial issue in many, many social movement spaces, and it is often difficult to get people, especially privileged people, to talk about it, so finding not just one but several essays foregrounding it was important. However, despite the focused attention, I was a bit disappointed that a lot of what I consider to be interesting and important about the issue did not get talked about, including a thorough discussion of some the ways that power as understood in a more complex way affects separate and autonomous organizing, and attention to politics of alliance both within and beyond separate and autonomous spaces. Perhaps one or two entries with a more dialogical form might have been useful, too.

The final class of essays that I appreciated in this volume, and the ones that are worth reading even if none of the other stuff interests you, are those that describe the actual experiences of women workers with particular instances of organizing and striking. Some of Armine Yalnizyan's discussion of community-based organizing strategies in her essay on the garment industry in Canada were interesting as was Patricia Baker's essay on two different approaches that have been taken to organizing bank workers. But for me at least it was the two opening essays of the book, in which strikes by Eaton's employees in southern Ontario and nurses in Alberta in the '80s were respectively described in detailed ways, that were the most inspiring.

In any case, there is a lot of useful and even exciting material in here but there is also a lot that is quite dry. Particularly given that and given the fact that the volume is on the old side, I would imagine for most people it would be useful as a resource for finding specific kinds of information rather than something to read cover to cover.

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

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