The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Women’s Oppression:
From the #MeToo Movement to Teachers’ Strikes and Beyond

May 14, 2018

The following article was excerpted from a presentation made at the April 2018 Spark Public Meeting in Detroit, Michigan.

In the fight of workers for a better society, the fight for women’s rights is as fundamental as the backbone is fundamental to the human body. The fight of women and the fight of workers is fought on the same battleground – a society run by all kinds of predators!

The #MeToo Movement – where women speak up about harassment and sexual violence – caught fire in 2017. The expression “MeToo!” was coined by black community activist Tarana Burke. Tarana coined the phrase in 2006 to help her in her work with black teens in Alabama. She found that if young women felt able to speak up about the sexual violence happening in their lives, it was a good first step toward doing something about it.

Hollywood women found and picked up the expression when they began to speak about harassment and rape in their industry. Tarana is at peace with giving her expression to the world. When the hashtag “MeToo” was put on Twitter, asking for women’s stories, 12 million women – around the world – responded. These results shocked “official society” but they did not shock most women.

Every woman has faced sexual harassment at some point in life, whether as a child or as an adult. It happens on the job, in the streets, and elsewhere.

Every woman has heard of a boss who offers a better job in return for sexual favors. It is a vicious situation to be in. Today, women have begun to speak out. But for many working class women, speaking out can mean losing their jobs. You can read all about the viciousness that can happen in the front page article in today’s Detroit Free Press. In this article, brave women speak out about sexual harassment by bosses at the State of Michigan Department of Corrections. One woman, who ended up fired from her guard job at a Michigan prison, explains how she was retaliated against. A female parole officer tells her harrowing story.

It was in fields of work where the man’s “public reputation” matters that the #MeToo campaign first spread. A few disgusting and powerful men have been forced to resign. While these men were publicly forced to “walk the plank,” the ship of exploitation continues to sail!

Women Are NOT Property with a Price Tag Attached

One man has gone to jail – Larry Nassar – the Michigan State University and U.S. Olympic Gymnast Team doctor. Before he went to jail, he had to listen to some of his more than 300 victims tell their stories as part of his punishment. One woman testified that her sexual abuse began at age 6, in the basement of Nassar’s home. A mother told about how the sexual assault of her daughter by Nassar occurred at age 12, stating, “It all started with him.” This mom was testifying because her daughter had taken her own life.

One after the other, women testified that this man is a monster, not a doctor. How did all this happen? Why did it go on for so long? Because the safety of children, the safety of women, is not the priority in this society. Profit is the priority in this society. The reputation of authority figures is the priority in this society. Women and children – especially if from the lower classes – are NOT to disrupt “business as usual.” In this society, sexual abuse and sexual violence is explained away as being the problem of just a few bad actors.

Business as usual in this society means capitalist society. In capitalist society, private property and profit are protected by law. A legal system built to defend the rich, built to defend private property, built on a foundation of mistreating so many people – a system like that is only kept in place with violence.

The violence that this society depends on to survive is not supposed to be talked about! So speaking up is an important first step. “Hush money” – where the wealthy use the legal system to pay someone off to “buy their silence” – is an everyday thing. We see it in the Stormy Daniels case. We see it in the case of John Engler, who is in charge at Michigan State University, offering a quarter of a million dollars in hush money to a sexual assault victim and her mother. She spoke up about it at an MSU Board of Trustees meeting. That meeting, packed with survivors, boiled over in anger.

Hush money happens because the powers-that-be don’t want all of their disgusting behavior and their violence talked about! Money for “damages” is about all the current legal system, set up to protect property, is able to provide. Every person is treated as if we are property and have a price tag on us!

Women Are More than Half the Work Force

Women who work in isolation – in fields and farms, in mines, in factories, in hotels, in restaurants and in offices – describe frequent sexual harassment. For as long as rulers have been lording over workers, for as long as “class society” has existed, women have decided to feed their families and keep quiet. But their abusers are just as wrong.

How can we call this a “modern” society – a “civilized” society – when any low level boss, in any walk of life, can get away with demanding sexual favors in exchange for women keeping a job or getting the schedule that they need? Wouldn’t a “civilized” society have as many laws as it takes to protect women and children? In our society, “laws” exist primarily to protect wealth, to protect private property.

Preying on women sexually has deep roots. If it feels to working women like it will take a revolution to topple this deeply rooted oppression, that is the truth. At a minimum, it will take a lot of organizing in workplaces before women feel safe even to speak up.

And today, women are in the workforce at much higher rates than in the past. In 2016, women were 57 percent (more than half) of the work force. Of special note, for women whose children are under 17 years old, the figure is that 72 percent are working! Where there are big numbers, there is the potential for big power. That is, if those big numbers are organized and come to be aware of what the real enemy is. In other words, organized in a class-conscious way.

Every day on the job, militant working class women have learned to stand up to their harasser. Whether the woman gets fired or not has a lot to do with having a network of support and respect organized around her. The reaction of co-workers matters. Tolerating harassment strengthens the boss. It is one more leg of the wealthy’s divide-and-conquer strategy.

One Fight Can Lead to Many

We never know, when people begin to fight, where that fight can end up. Look at the fight of West Virginia school employees. This mostly female workforce of teachers, bus drivers, and support personnel were reluctant to strike at first. But new attacks on their healthcare, combined with puny raises, was the straw that broke the camel’s back. When teachers in three counties did an early walk-out, the governor called teachers “dumb bunnies.” So they put on their bunny ears and laughed at the governor! The idea of a larger strike caught fire.

Not long after, votes of school workers – union and non-union – were organized in all 55 counties of West Virginia. The votes showed that workers were ready to strike. School employees looked for ways to make it easy for other public employees in West Virginia to want to support them and join them. They demanded raises for all public employees since all were underpaid. They reached out in their communities to churches and community groups so that in this state with a high rate of child poverty, children would have access to food and child care while school employees were on strike. They reached out to parents as allies in the fight.

And once they started to fight, 55 counties strong, shutting down every public school in the state, it turned out that their strong fight was so inspiring, they ended up with allies they never expected to have. It turned out that politicians in the state legislature had so underfunded education on a statewide level that many local school boards, principals and superintendents quietly did what they could to support the strikers.

During all nine days of the strike, all 55 counties made sure they sent their school representatives to the state capitol. Those representatives were able to speak for their respective school districts. Each day of the strike, the numbers at the capitol kept growing, and getting louder. Authorities were getting nervous about the growing crowds.

In the end, an immediate five percent raise for all school employees and all state workers in West Virginia was won by the strike. Certainly, these workers deserve much more. But the power workers have – 30,000 strong, going out on strike together – is shown by the fact that West Virginia school employees got something they had been told was impossible.

It Will Take a Revolution

In this society, for the working class to turn the balance of forces around in our favor, it is not enough for all the school employees in one state to go out on strike. It takes an even bigger fight. But we can see from what has happened since West Virginia that a fight which starts in one place can spread widely to many others.

In Oklahoma, with another largely female workforce, teachers took up the baton and just completed a two-week strike. Teachers will get their first raise in 10 years. Other school workers will get a raise, too. There will be a small funding increase for schools. Seeing what happened in West Virginia and reading the handwriting on the wall, Oklahoma politicians quickly passed a pay raise for teachers to try and prevent a strike. Teachers went on strike anyway. By going on strike, teachers gained important experience.

Other states have followed the West Virginia example of going out on strike in big numbers. In Kentucky, a sneak attack on teacher pensions that will hit current teachers somewhat but will hit future state employees a lot, has caused a state-wide strike, and closed schools, during three different one-day actions. On April 2, all schools in all 120 counties of Kentucky were closed.

Another state inspired by West Virginia was Arizona. There, the governor said he would never budge on raises. Now he “promises” a 20 percent raise over two years – but only for teachers and not for all school employees. The teachers want a raise for all who work in the school system. On April 19 – in a state-wide vote – 57,000 school employees, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, teacher aides and teachers submitted ballots. The result was that 78 percent said yes to a strike on April 26.

In all four of these fights, teachers have demanded that more money for education be paid for by taxes on corporations. The way these largely female workforces are raising their demands raises a larger question. What kind of a society are we going to live in? Is society as a whole going to be responsible for children? Or is society only in existence to promote ever-increasing corporate profits, and kids, women and workers be damned?

The fights that are happening now will need to go further. These fights will need to spread to more and more workplaces, beyond just schools.

What is impressive about West Virginia and all of these strikes is how we see people breaking the bonds that tie them down. “Proper channels” get teachers nowhere. Teachers were told strikes are “illegal” but they went on strike anyway. They showed that when workers begin massively to fight, all kinds of things we are told are not possible suddenly become possible.

When more and more workplaces begin to fight, in more and more states, the power of workers in motion is what will change the situation for children, the situation for schools, the situation for women, the situation for the whole society.

The oppression of women is based on the social relationships that have developed over centuries of exploitative class relationships. That will take a revolution to overturn.

Many a social movement, many a strike wave, many a revolution (like the Russian Revolution) reached its tipping point and began the long road to victory when women decided they were fed up. Courageous acts by individuals as well as masses of women demanding food for their families have often been the spark to light the powder keg of revolt. In the end, for working-class women to throw off the harassment of the petty boss requires the same solution as for workers in general to throw off the harassment of the petty boss. Organize and fight! A better future depends on it!