Tuesday 8 March 2011

Women and Labour in the Realm of Capital

The Position of Labour in Poland in the Prism of Neoliberal Ideology

The relation of workers to capital is crystal clear: their goal is to produce surplus (profit) for those investing money, to improve the quality of those people's lives and to increase their power to own, invest and control. The neoliberal dogma instilled in people convince them that this is a natural relation. Moreover, workers are led to believe that the capitalists are doing them a favour by „creating jobs”. We are taught that we must beg and compete with others for work then comply with all the demands or whims of the bosses to remain in employment. Our very material existence depends on our willingness and ability to satisfy the needs of our employers. Our own needs are usually put on hold or forsaken.

The „solution” to this proposed by society which has accepted this order is that each worker should try to get special skills which would enable him or her to get a better position in the pecking order. This is the false solution of an individualized society which seeks to remedy social problems through individual exceptions to mass misery while keeping the problem in tact. In this sense, the individualized mentality is not only convenient for capital but is a cornerstone of economic hierarchy.

That a mass problem exists should be obvious in Poland where most working people live on subsistence wages, with little surplus while some portion satisfy themselves with the extra rewards of modern labour – small comforts which they have paid dearly for. Furthermore, as the public sector has come under attack by vultures scavenging for profits on the corpses of public health, education and housing, huge portions of society find themselves without access to adequate health services, with little chance to have a decent and secure roof over their head and faced with the chance that they will not be able to afford higher education for their children. Yet such problems are often described as some particular local misfortune and are blamed on bad organization, thieving politicians and public administrators and, as the ultimate expression of twisted consciousness, these problems can be blamed on the workers themselves, who supposedly are to blame for their own situation.
The ideology we are fed deliberately divides workers and convinces layers of better-positioned employees that the problem of poverty if one of a lack of individual motivation, having nothing to do with the system.

Breaking through this ideological stupor, one can easily see its falsity. We can look at the undervalued labour of various professions and dismantle these myths. The situation of nurses is quite a good example. There is absolutely nothing wrong with their labour. They have worked hard to prepare themselves for their profession, the do a very hard and necessary job – yet they earn very little. It is absolutely clear that the problem is the undervaluing of their labour in Poland.

The undervaluing of this labour is directly linked to the ideology which places no value on anything which is not a profit-producing vehicle for business. Thus all work which is done for the basic benefit of people, not for the benefit of business, is relegated to the margins, its workers forced on low wages and told to be compensated by the knowledge they are „doing something good”.

It is no coincidence that in Poland, like in many other countries, such jobs are held by women to a disproportionate degree. Workers in these professions are thus put in hardship and must fight for their dignity and better compensation for their labour. However the difficulty of this is enormous. In a private conversation, one of the leaders of the nurses' union once lamented that there is a problem with both inspiring militancy among women and being treated seriously. Nurses have been known to organize strong protests, showing outstanding commitment and courage – yet they do not have the „force” of workers in other sectors. It seems that some have understood the word „force” to mean physical force; one conjures up images of miners fighting with the police or shipyard workers burning tires in the middle of the road. But the reality may be somewhat different.

Nurses are in a difficult situation. Since they do not want to hurt people and patients, they may strike not leaving the beds of the patients. But ultimately, if they do leave the beds of the patients, they would only be hitting the working classes. The rich are in private clinics, as well as the politicians who destroy the system. The key to a successful struggle then is widespread social support and action against the political and economic system causing the problem. This is however sorely lacking in our society.

The Position of Women in Labour and the Labour Movement: Is it Something Specific?

One might be tempted to argue that the position of the nurses has nothing to do with their gender, but rather to do with the nature of their work and capital's relation to it. However there is no denying that women wind up in undervalued jobs much more often than men. Then it is a question about how such people, faced with material deprivation and insecurity, can go about improving their condition.
It is also worth pointing out that all statistics and surveys show that even when women find themselves in slightly better employment, they earn much less than men and are more inclined to accept other unfavourable conditions.

Sociologists, feminists and other observers point to many decisive factors such as a lack of assertiveness amongst women or some silent resignation to the fact that they are to pick up the slack and do more work, something learned from the classic paradigm of the Polish household where Mother did most of the housework and knew that complaining about it would be „unpleasant”. This unequal relation of labour in the home is still commonplace, despite many transformations in society and the acceptance of such a scheme is the pattern for attitudes towards women and their labour.
Another tendency is one to avoid conflict, which, although not strictly related to gender, is a pressure many women feel acutely. Yet the essence of the labour struggle is the eternal conflict between employer and employee. It is only through conflict that the employee may begin to fight for her or his interests. And one must be able to feel strength, as this struggle is often with those who possess considerably more power.

Some understanding of the specific situation of many women in the labour market may be helpful for us to think of what we need to do to overcome certain barriers in organizing. These specifics may be overgeneralized or may be more or less relevant in different areas, but, regardless of these details, we must deal with the following facts: that women are more often in undervalued jobs or are underpaid; that women, although unionized, have not had the same success as men in forcing their demands through labour struggles; the labour movement is still disproportionately male dominated.

The Anarchosyndicalist Movements: Addressing the Problem

Obviously, the problem of gender disproportion in any union or group may be dependent on many factors such as the society, branch, composition of existing members or their attitude or approach. But overall, the gender gap is obvious. Furthermore, although some groups have good participation of women, we find in general that many of the responsible functions are predominantly held by men.

One can make many theories about what is responsible for this situation, but ultimately the answer is most likely to be slightly different in the different groups. In Poland we have discussed this issue many times and we tend to identify the following as being real factors in this situation:

- past experience of sexism in the anarchist movement and history of anarchafeminists moving away from anarchists towards liberal feminists and social democracy
- general absence or low participation of working women in social life due to pressures of work and family responsibilities
- some guys have certain sexist attitudes towards women, not taking them seriously, or viewing them as potential girlfriends and even where if the people in the group are not this way, this pattern is taught and is a repeated dynamic in social life
- some groups promote an old-fashioned vision of what it is to be a „worker”, conjuring up images of coal miners and (male) factory workers, making them the main subject of the struggle
Although the situation in Poland is quite specific and, for certain reasons worse than in many places, undoubtedly some of these factors are present elsewhere. So the question is, what are we going to do about it?

Obviously, it is going to take more than just paying attention to who the subject of the struggles are. Although this is a start. As women become more prominent in this, they ideas about who can be active in a labour struggle changes and women may identify more with the stories they hear. But also we have got to confront the practices we have, for example at our meetings, which may be alienating for women or discourage their participation. The same would be true for any other type of person who might be problems integrating into the organizational culture for any reason: younger or older people, foreigners, outsiders not connected into any social networks which might be present in a group.

International Women's Day is now a century old. A century has passed and while women have made great progress is some areas, there is still a lot to be done. On this occasion, I personally would like to reflect on the state of things in our movement and think of what we can do to not only facilitate the participation of women in our movement but encourage a much more active role. Hopefully this anniversary will also remind many of the comrades around the world that our movement, in general, is faced with this challenge.

Laure Akai