Saturday, June 09, 2007

Review: Sisters and Solidarity

[Julie White. Sisters and Solidarity: Women and Unions in Canada. Toronto: Thompson Educational Publishing, Inc., 1993.]

As I have learned in the course of writing many book reviews on this site, there are many different ways in which a book can be difficult to review. It might be a loose collection of essays in many different voices about which very little can usefully be said in general and overall, say. Or it might trigger some sort of gut reaction of an intensity, positive or negative, that I know is idiosyncratic and that makes it hard to evaluate the book fairly in other ways. Or it might deal in ideas that engage me but that are in some sense a bit beyond me at the moment, and wrestling with them in print feels exhilirating but also risky and potentially embarassing.

Reviewing this book is difficult for none of those reasons. Rather, Sisters and Solidarity is a dated and unexciting volume containing a mix of useful-to-me content, not so useful-to-me content that is still politically useful in general, and some politically problematic content, and I'm worried that my own lack of excitement about the book itself might come across as lack of sufficient regard for the ongoing hold of patriarchy and other oppressions on the organization of work and on the Canadian labour movement. I seem to remember lugging stacks of this book around when I worked in the textbook section of a university bookstore but, unlike this book, it actually reads rather like a textbook. Which is too bad. But I know that it is important stuff, for reasons quite close to home: it is not at all an issue of openly sexist behaviour by any individual -- a disclaimer I add just in case any colleague of hers happens to stumble across this post -- but my own partner's decisions about her level and kind of participation in her current union have everything to do with navigating structural barriers that are gendered.

The book begins with a couple of chapters on the history of women and unions. Because it is only a couple of chapters, it isn't able to be as detailed as I might like, but it is a useful overview and, though it is fairly conventionally written history, it does introduce some ideas that are worth thinking about as well.

The next chapter is framed as a look at the advantages of unionization for women. This book is actually a drastic updating of a book written by the same author more than a decade before, and in her previous book this chapter was organized as an intervention in a debate ongoing at the time about whether or not unions were good for women. I hadn't realized that had ever been a subject of active contention within the women's movement, and it was interesting to learn that it was. However, by the point this book was written, this debate was largely settled, and in this book the author's focus is a basic introduction to what unions are, with a feminist approach to understanding how they can be of value to women working for pay even though battles against sexism within the movement are ongoing. It covers fairly basic territory so I didn't find it a terribly useful chapter for me personally, but I can see why it would've been useful when the book was being used as a textbook.

The next two chapters look at the status of women within the labour movement, in terms of representation in different kinds and levels of leadership and in terms of union structures and policy decisions. This is obviously some of the content that is dated, but at the same time I think it is good to have this historical snapshot collected in one place even if it is not particularly relevant to my own work. On the down side, these chapters were very tedious to read -- reviewing numbers and policies for twelve labour centrals and a bunch of individual unions across the country cannot help but be dry.

The next chapter looks at women who are not currently union members, and at questions related to organizing. As with the chapter on the benefits of unions, the general observations are not going to be anything new if you have even a fairly basic background in these issues, but I enjoyed the specific case studies related to organizing unorganized women -- the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and the Public Service Alliance of Canada organizing homeworkers, the Canadian Union of Postal Workers' largely unsuccessful attempt to organize cleaners, and strategies for legal change from the Ontario Federation of Labour.

The final chapter is called "Racial Minorities, Persons with Disabilities, and Gays and Lesbians." On the one hand, at least in some sections (though, most troublingly, not much in the two chapters looking at the current situation of women in unions, which were based in the author's own primary research), issues of racism seemed to be integrated more frequently through the rest of the book than in this recently reviewed volume from the same era and on the same topic. However, the presence of this catchall chapter at the end draws attention to the fact that, like that other volume, the most frequent frame used for incorporating consideration of oppressions other than gender is a politically problematic "difference" frame.

Overall, I suspect this book will mainly be of interest to people doing research of one sort or another -- the issues it deals with are still current, of course, but much of the original information that it presents is out of date. But it does make me think that there would be room for a new publication taking an unflinching look at oppression within the Canadian labour movement, past and present, and a discussion of the efforts by gender-oppressed, queer, racialized, disabled, and other workers to truly make it a movement for all workers.

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