Making Feminist Politics: Transnational Alliances between Women and Labor

Making Feminist Politics: Transnational Alliances between Women and Labor

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In this timely and detailed examination of the intersections of feminism, labor politics, and global studies, Suzanne Franzway and Mary Margaret Fonow reveal the ways in which women across the world are transforming labor unions in the contemporary era. Situating specific case studies within broad feminist topics, Franzway and Fonow concentrate on union feminists mobilizing at multiple sites, issues of wages and equity, child care campaigns, work-life balance, and queer organizing, demonstrating how unions around the world are broadening their focuses from contractual details to empowerment and family and feminist issues. By connecting the diversity of women's experiences around the world both inside and outside the home and highlighting the innovative ways women workers attain their common goals, Making Feminist Politics lays the groundwork for recognition of the total individual in the future of feminist politics within global union movements.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780252077920
Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Publication date: 02/17/2011
Edition description: 1st Edition
Pages: 192
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Suzanne Franzway is the director of the Research Center for Women's Studies and a professor of sociology and gender studies at the University of South Australia. Mary Margaret Fonow is the director of the School of Social Transformation and a professor of women and gender studies at Arizona State University.

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Making Feminist Politics

Transnational Alliances between Women and Labor


Copyright © 2011 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-252-07792-0

Chapter One

Feminist Politics and Transnational Labor Movements

In 2000 the World March for Women gathered in Ottawa, Canada, to demonstrate the broad and growing support across the globe for equality and justice for women. Walking among the posters, union banners, and flags proclaiming each group's identity and concerns was one young woman holding a single rose. She was a nurse whose local union was on strike and who had traveled the long distance from Saskatchewan, because she felt she had to be there among other women, no matter how diverse their issues. In 2009 giant pregnant puppets sauntered through the opening ceremony of an arts festival in Adelaide, South Australia, part of a national campaign for paid maternity leave organized by women's organizations and trade unions. In 2005 in hot white tents in Porto Alegre, Brazil, women from a dozen different places, countries, organizations, movements, and NGOs, as well as individuals, worked to understand one another's experiences and concerns, and are both dismayed and hopeful to find how much they share.

Women's right to work and right to economic security are central to women's equality. Such rights are won through creative and persistent feminist politics. Little is gained unless women themselves can participate in the politics of economic and social justice. Without this capacity, the labor market, workplaces, and economic welfare become sites of discrimination and oppression of women. If women are not integrated into the organizations and associations of workers' rights, their needs and issues are ignored or excluded, resulting in skewed or discriminatory political and industrial agendas.

The powerful and unpredictable forces of globalization serve to heighten the need for feminist politics to mobilize around women's work and economic security rights. However, the magnitude of social and economic dislocations associated with globalization and global capital appear to limit progressive political activism. The rapid spread of the so-called "credit crisis" across the globe is producing new threats to workers and new opportunities to undermine rights and conditions (Buvinic, Sabarwal, and Sinha 2009; World Bank 2009). Yet globalization has also provided opportunities for workers and their organizations to build transnational labor movements and alliances with progressive social movements by imagining the possibility of another, more just world. If the upsurge in global activism is to be relevant to women workers, worker organizations and social movements must develop the political discourses and spaces by which women can develop and engage as transnational political actors.

Our overall concern in this book is with the emergence of transnational feminist activism in trade unions and how feminists are using the resources of their union networks, feminist social movements, and the discourses of feminism to advocate for the labor rights of women in the global economy. We have selected sites of political activism that depend on diverse forms of networks and alliances in order to identify and explain what factors determine the impact of union women as transnational political actors. These sites include unions, international labor bodies, working-women's centers, conferences, campaigns, transnational advocacy networks, families and intimate relations, and the body.

We focus on strategies that develop where the women's movement and the labor movement come together at the level of discourses, practices, issues, and commitments, and at the level of individuals, organizations, and institutions. We ask how feminism circulates within labor networks and how the ideas of labor circulate within feminists' networks. Do their discourses reflect or transform each others' issues and ways of framing globalization?

Feminist literature on globalization and the struggles to create alternatives that are more humane is well developed (Basu 2005; Cohen and Brodie 2007; Conway 2008; Eschle 2001, 2002; Ferree and Tripp 2006; Gibson-Graham 1996, 2006; Hawkesworth 2006, 2009; Hawkesworth and Alexander 2008; Moghadam 2005; Naples and Desai 2002; Ong 1987, 2002; Sen 1997; Walby 2002). The hallmark issues of the global justice movement have been integral to feminist politics and theorizing for some time, in particular trade, debt, migration, taxes, structural adjustment programs, poverty, development, environment, health disparities, violence, and war (Bakker and Gill 2003; Bedford 2007; Benería 2003; Benería and Bisnath 2004; Hearn and Parkin 2001; Kay 2005; MacDonald 2002; Marchand and Runyan 2000; Quintero-feminist Ramírez 2002; Walby 2009). Feminists bring valuable insights to our understanding of the sexual politics of how globalization and global activism are gendered (Eschle 2005; Mohanty 2003). Such insights are important to finding solutions to some of the world's most pressing problems.

We argue that the task of making feminist politics in labor movements at local, national, and international levels has a notable and fine, if at times invisible, history. These efforts have not been an exercise in futility, even though labor movements and trade unions are often seen as male-dominated organizations in which gender issues are submerged by class politics and "bread-and-butter" issues of jobs and wages. Likewise, in the current context of globalizing economic, social, technological, and environmental issues, feminist politics can engage with labor movements to mobilize political action on behalf of women of different races, nationalities, and sexualities. Such mobilizing structures can be used to harness the resources for effective political campaigns and build transnational solidarity among women.

Making feminist politics within and through the trade union movement involves challenging prevailing gender relations, gendered discourses, and gendered power. A small but critical mass of feminists active within and around labor movements confronts the task by utilizing prevailing discourses of the women's movement, the civil rights/human rights movement, and the global justice movement to forge a dynamic politics of transnational union feminism. Union feminists draw on historical strategies such as separate women's committees, forums, conferences, and courses, and on more recent technologies to create discursive alliances and political networks within and across labor movements and social movements.

Our central question is, How do union women make feminist politics within and through the trade union movement so that its complex structures and relations of power are reconfigured to achieve feminist goals? The particular focus is on how union feminists build transnational alliances and political campaigns across many lines of difference in the struggle for economic and social rights and global justice.

Why Unions?

In times of remarkable change, it is worth asking what is the value of focusing attention on trade unions and the transnational labor movement that appear conservative and out of date. Trade unions tend to be regarded as traditional institutions locked into relationships with states and capitalism that effectively impede economic and social progress for workers as well as the rest of society. By contrast, the women's movement is still categorized as a new social movement (although rapidly aging) and fits David Snow et alia's (2004) relatively inclusive definition of social movements as "collectivities acting with some degree of coordination and continuity" (11). As such, it has a more dynamic profile. Unions' declining membership in western and globalizing capitalist economies and lack of purchase in many developing economies could indicate that they are no longer relevant to contemporary societies (Erne 2008; Jose 2002; B. Silver 2003; Turner, Katz, and Hurd 2001; Western 1997). Certainly, the labor movement is being forced to stand on different legs from those on which it fought for workers' rights during industrialization and western empire-building: it can no longer rely on traditional labor movement politics.

Pressures exerted by neoliberal global capital are having varied effects on trade unions' support for their potentially diverse members, including women. When, however, the interests of labor overlap with other movements that focus on workers' rights, political spaces are expanding. Where there is increased hostility by the state, however, unions have reduced their support. In Australia, for example, where more than a decade of conservative neoliberal national government has actively destroyed its centralized industrial relations system, union support has contracted (Peetz 2006). Women's officers and training officers, both positions that provided useful resources to women workers and to building women's interests into trade union political agendas, have been cut, undermining the feminist strategy for change based on winning hierarchical positions of public power (Beccalli and Meardi 2002; Briskin 2009; Pocock 1997). Whatever gains were made for women workers in the past now seem quite tenuous. Such losses of specific women's positions and resources reveal the limits of a political strategy aimed at intervening in hierarchical structures of power, rather than transforming them. And yet progress is also being made, especially by those unions and peak bodies that are responding to feminist demands—for example, Nora Wintour (2006) documents the ways the international peak body, the Public Services International (PSI) has strategized to ensure that its affiliate unions meet the agreed gender equity targets for women in union leadership.

Threatened by pressure from neoliberal global capital to provide flexible labor, the trade union movement has adopted its own more flexible policies designed to include the needs and interests of the great variety of potential members. The foundational concept of the universal worker—that is, the full-time male industrial worker—has had to change in recognition of the complexity of what now constitutes workers (Walby 2009). In the same vein, it may be said that feminism has been enlivened by the need to include the diversities of global gender relations. We therefore suggest that these shifts and changes reveal new possibilities for progressive action.

Trade unions are formally structured to represent the economic and political interests of workers on the local, national, and international level, and thus connect workers organically to the multiple and contradictory processes and levels of globalization (Fonow and Franzway 2007). Unions link their members locally, regionally, and globally to the broader network of activists, social movements, and organizations concerned with similar issues—that is, labor rights and justice (Turner and Cornfield 2007). As sites of advocacy, unions bring workers together within and across workplaces, firms, and communities and within and across national borders.

At the international level, such networking occurs through a union's formal membership in international trade union secretariats and confederated labor bodies and, less formally, through strategic partnerships and alliances with transnational social movements, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and intergovernmental agencies. On the local level, unions connect workers within and across occupations and structure their collective relationship to regional labor bodies, to local governments and NGOs and to grassroots community organizations and campaigns.

Unions have always been involved in international labor networks, but tensions between nationalism and internationalism can be traced back to efforts by Marx and Engels to build international organizations of workers (Hanagan 2003; Lorwin 1929; Nimtz 2002; Pasture and Verberckmoes 1998; Waterman and Timms 2004). The U.S. labor movement, however, lost much of its credibility in international labor circles when cold war politics made it nearly impossible for labor to align with progressive or left-wing movements abroad. The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) not only expelled radicals in their own affiliates, but also cooperated with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in undermining the influence of left-wing unions and parties in other parts of the world (Frutiger 2002; Scipes 2000; Stepan-Norris and Zeitlin 2002). The U.S. labor community still struggles with this legacy as it tries to sort out the type of international politics required by current forces of globalization.

However, not only is the international labor movement divided by barriers between states, but trade unions are also separated by borders of their own creation. A trade union that recruits members from areas outside its traditional coverage is seen as "poaching" and as hostile to other unions. This continues to be the case in countries like Australia despite the compression of hundreds of unions into a couple of dozen through amalgamations in the early 1990s, a process that was a calculated response to globalizing labor markets and to neoliberal hostility to unionization (Pocock 1997). In addition, the historically specific divisions created by industries, occupational hierarchies (managers, skilled, unskilled workers), gender, "race," public and private sectors, and "blue" and "white" collar stereotypes, differences, and boundaries are difficult to bridge let alone blur (Williams 1988). As a result, the potential effectiveness of united groups of unions, such as peak national and international trades and labor councils, can be limited.

One such limitation too often arises from the obstacles created by the persistence and ubiquity of unequal gender relations in the trade union movement. This common understanding of the trade union movement fails to evoke transformative possibilities. Overall, women make up 43 percent of trade union members in Australia, with similar proportions in Canada and the United States, but women remain underrepresented at almost all levels of union activity, especially at the more powerful levels of full-time and paid secretary and president positions (Cobble and Bielski Michal 2002; Colgan and Ledwith 2002; Mezinec 1999). Women have gained some leadership positions and made inroads into union agendas and resources. However, women's participation rates are disproportionate to their leadership rates and, on any measure, inequalities continue. As one woman union official in our research observed, "When I go to the national office I look around their walls and their photographs over years and years, and there is not one woman in sight, not one." This pattern is mirrored at the transnational level where women are underrepresented in international organizations of labor, including the International Labour Organization (ILO), the Global Union Federations (GUFs), the former International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), and the newly formed International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). Nevertheless, feminist politics aims for much more than winning leadership positions for women. It seeks to gain women's rights and social justice comprehensively and in all their necessarily diverse manifestations. Despite the obstacles, women's commitment to workplace and politics, activism, and militancy are significant. The minority positions of union women activists in trade unions together with their feminist politics give them strong incentives to work across state and union borders to make alliances that are creative and productive.

Political spaces for feminist activism have proliferated where the interests of labor overlap with other movements concerned about labor rights. This has become even more critical under current global conditions (Moghadam, Franzway, and Fonow forthcoming; Walby 2009). Increasingly, campaigns for labor rights are organized and funded not by the unions alone, but with support from religious organizations, foundations, universities, and in some instances from the state. Union issues are being defined in new ways, with many unions actively engaged in equity bargaining and family-friendly workplaces, as well as developing policies such as those opposing workplace bullying and those supporting international aid. New players from the nonprofit sector, such as the Women's International Coalition for Economic Justice, Women's Environment and Development Organization, and Women's Edge Coalition, and activists from other social movements, such as the Students against Sweatshops, are joining with unions as strategic partners in the growing transnational networks for labor rights (Liebowitz 2002; Moghadam 2005).


Excerpted from Making Feminist Politics by SUZANNE FRANZWAY MARY MARGARET FONOW Copyright © 2011 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


1. Feminist Politics and Transnational Labor Movements....................1
2. Sexual Politics, Activism, and Everyday Life....................24
3. Sexual Politics, Labor, and the Family....................47
4. Political Spaces: Centers, Conferences, and Campaigns....................67
5. Feminist Politics in International Labor....................87
6. Women's Activism in the International Metalworkers' Federation....................108
7. Another World Is Possible for Women, If ....................125
8. Conclusion: The Future of Feminist Politics in Global Union Movements....................139

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