A report from the Women with Initiative meeting, Workers Initiative Union, Poland, 21-20 April 2012, Warsaw; by its participant, Monika from IWW (X354612).
Women with Initiative is a working group in the Workers Initiative (which was started in 2001 and officially registered as a union in 2004, and has around 1000 members) that started three years ago. At first the working group wrote focused articles for the union's bulletin. They communicate via e-mail and have meetings at other actions and meetings, as well as specific meetings. They sent a survey to all local groups of the union before this meeting to find out what women members want the event to cover and what problems they face in their workplace and other struggles they are involved in.
The meeting had been planned for two years and was attended by around 30 women from the union around Poland, as well as the women's officer of the Spanish CGT, her daughter and myself from the IWW. The meeting took place in a squat in the centre of Warsaw, Syrena, which also celebrated its one-year anniversary on the weekend.
The Workshop dealt with work discrimination and unpaid, domestic (household) work - the "double shift" that still largely falls to women, as well as the global aspects of the discrimination of women. It was followed by a planning meeting for a demonstration in June in Poznan against the UEFA Cup to highlight the contrast between public expenditure on the sports event against the cuts to public services.
On Sunday a lawyer specialized in anti-discrimination legislation gave a presentation and was available to answer specific questions. This was followed by presentations from the CGT and myself for the IWW. The meeting closed with a feedback and forward planning session.
The Saturday session started with introductions in small groups with the kick-off questions 'Why are you a member of your union? And why did you come to this meeting?. Two women told me about their work in two creches in Poznan. All workers except the janitor are women and they are currently fighting for a wage-increase. In recent years the number of children per worker has increased. The workers have not had a pay-rise since 2009 and demand a 30% raise. They also work longer for less since the 'reforms' last year. After 12 years in the workplace one of them made € 380 per month, the other, with less time in the job, earned € 350.
Another of their demands is benefits for all workers, as those are currently not equally distributed. They've also discovered that they have not been paid for all their hours for some years and are taking their boss to court. The first case is scheduled for the 10 May. Both have been members for 6 months, with Workers Initiative now the recognized union in the workplace.
Another woman introduced herself as a member of the local Women with Initiative committee. An anthropology graduate, she has problems finding work since finishing her education and has never worked legally, which is common. She gives private English lessons. She hopes to train as a teacher, but as her work is on the black market it does not give her any recognized experience. She was a member of different anarcha-feminist collectives before joining the union and is also an animal rights activist. She also cannot claim benefits as she has never worked legally, being registered as unemployed provides her with basic health insurance. She also gave an example of having translated parts of a book and never receiving pay, but being unable to take legal action, as her work was illegal. She makes around € 300 per month.
I then shared my own experiences and reasons for joining the IWW, which had a lot in common with those of the other participants, echoing the scenario of freelance work not providing benefits and the difficulty to find affordable housing.
Two other women in our group worked in a Chinese-owned electronics factory in one of Poland's economic free zones (which were created in 1994), and told us about grueling long shifts (sometimes up to 16 hours or more) in a factory that runs 24/7, and the abusive behavior of management there. They have been in Workers Initiative for some months and are very keen to organize and fight for better conditions and are hoping to take strike action shortly. They concluded their description of their work situation and struggle with what, for me, became the single most incisive moment of the weekend, when they said they were determined to fight, even if it lead to the closure of the factory, "I want to attack our boss, because he destroyed our life and took everything from us."
Another participant, who had been in the union for 9 years, had worked in the factory for a couple of months, and wanted to focus on supporting their fight. To her the struggle of women and that of working people is one and the same, she added, we all work, paid or unpaid. She also liked that the union was self-organized and run by members, and that she wanted to link our struggles at work and in the home. Carolina from Gdansk, a teacher, added that she saw how school education already creates gender discrimination.
Other women, who worked in a floor-board factory explained how their bosses had deliberately falsified the punch-card system that calculates their work hours for two years. They liked the union because it was not corrupt. A member who worked in a University Library, and all of whose colleagues are women, shared her personal fears about the imminent "reform" that will raise the retirement age to 67.
Isabella from the CGT talked about how she was laid off when the benefits office she worked at was privatized as part of the wider privatization of public services in Spain. She has been women's secretary of the CGT since 2009.
Another Workers Intiative member, from Krakow, told us about getting into debt since she got sick as she had no health insurance. She works in an office and had been so happy to get a better contract that she, she said, let her boss exploit her. She talked about the mobbing in her workplace, and said that compared to others, she felt she experinced a 'softer' exploitation, but that this still influenced her life.
A participant from the squat talked about their work against the privatisation of public schools and canteens, and mentioned the work Syrena do to support migrant workers and people who come to Warsaw from other parts of Poland. Many migrant workers come from Ukraine to work as cleaners and on construction sites, where they are often cheated of their wages. People from Syrena help them to put pressure on the boss.
Another participant had worked at the Greenkett factory in the town of Steszew. She was fired when she got ill and is since dependent on her husband's income. She is still active in the union.
Women also talked about their hope to improve the situation and change the worsening realities. One of the organizers, who worked for an NGO since she graduated, faced discrimination there. She said that our life us under pressure from work all the time and that work should be satisfaction, and not become all of life. She said that the more she met with others to share our experiences, the more she realized how important it is to fight the regime of work.
After this first session we proceeded to agree ground rules for the meeting, such as listening to each other and focusing on our own experiences, and say clearly if we talked about something else.
This was followed by a workshop, 'Is Discrimination a Fact or a Myth'. We split into groups to draw up lists of:
-stereotypes about men and how they function in society, at work and in relation to bosses;
-stereotypes about women and how they function in society, at work and in relation to bosses;
-What is capitalism, the role of people in it, what is important and why?
-What is work for you, what are stereotypes about work?
After 10 minutes we met up again to discuss. We talked about how stereotypes are created as a single concept that is applied generalized across one group, and how these stereotypes affect us as self-organized female workers. Coming to 'What is Capitalism',: no basic rights (like health-care, housing), money is the measure of everything, control of society and workers (surveillance etc.), destruction of the environment in the name of profit, ... Moving to the topic of work, we talked about the distinction of waged work and work as a social activity.
The question then was how we could connect the rules of the economic system to the stereotypes about men and women?
What jobs do we think of as well-paid: for example: a dentist. Are stereotypes about men or women good for being a dentist? Imagine women and men apply for the jobs and their potential boss has believes in the stereotypes we listed. We scored all stereotypes positive, negative and neutral in relation to the qualities one would look for in a dentist, and after much debate, arrived at the scores, with men taking a clear lead. We concluded that even in a job, which is done by both men and women, the role still appears to better fit with stereotypes about men.
Agnieszka, who led the workshop than suggested that if we did the same exercise about house or care work, we would end up with the opposite result. And, if we look at those examples in relation to capitalism, we see that carework and other jobs associated with affective labour are not valued. She stressed that how we as women think about work also helps capitalists to divide and exploit us - after all, we came up with the stereotypes!
The first job discrimination case in Poland was brought and won by a man who wanted to work in a medical lab.
We discussed the pressure to be 'good looking' - participants said this was also about class division, but they felt this was expected of all women, and that women needed to spend a lot of time and money on it. A kindergarten worker mentioned that their contract even specified they had to be 'aesthetic' and good looking. Sexism, we thought, was also connected with prestige and financial success, and stereotypes are used to make women do the work men don't want to do, as it is defined as natural for women and men to care about different things. Everyone learns them from childhood on, for instance the daughter will be asked to help in the kitchen rather than a son. Some also emphasized that the aim is not, as some liberal feminists argue, to fit the desirable profile of a male role within capitalist society. Our demand should not be about how to be a more effective worker. We need to be vigilant and aware that things we fight for now, can later be used to exploit us more efficiently.
We also discussed the reinforcement of stereotypes and types of work: Work done by women leads to the qualities associated with this work being defined as 'feminine', then this becomes the norm and women who do not behave in this way are seen negatively, as a result women strive more to fit the norm, increasing this norm becoming what appears a 'natural' reality.
Isabella argued that capitalism is obviously not interested in equality, especially when we think about wages. Most jobs connected to care work are not paid, because we do them for free. If this work were paid, capitalism could not function. We need to analyze gender and class together, not as two separate categories, or as one being more important then the other. Rather, they are interconnected.
After a collective dinner, prepared by some fellow workers from the union, we regrouped for a theory presentation by two participants, to give an overview of how capitalism works and how unpaid work and the role of women fits into this. They shared a sheet with data on economic inequalities globally, e.g. women land-ownership, paid work XXX. Their talk focused on the central role of the myth of stereotypes in the capitalist economy, the causes of the unequal division of labour and its effect on our lives.
They started with the work of the labour and feminist movement in 1970s Italy. At the time, much as in Poland today, unemployment in Italy was high and wages were low. WIth high inflation, prices of goods and services increased greatly. At this point, the labour movement in Italy moved their struggles beyond the workplace. This is also the case in Poland now, with tenants and rent strikes, for example, were a lot of the very active participants are women. Women are for instance particularly affected by higher costs of electricity as they have to spend more time on house-work when trying to use less electricity. With increasing costs of child-care, this work has to be done, again, unpaid in the home. Both house work and child care disproportionally affect women.
In 1970s Italy, women started to talk about house work as invisible work by women, which should be recognized. They were partially successful as housework has more and more been noticed and discussed as work since, although not financially. By drawing the conclusion that capitalism relies on the unpaid work of women, they changed their attitude to the market and the division within the working class as they showed that housework brings profits for the capitalist economy. This also showed that not only workplace organizing is important. Because of emotional expectations and our socialization many of us cannot imagine refusing to do this work. Also, if women stay at home, male workers can more easily find work. This also provides an infrastructure for the unemployed.
Those theories were controversial and new to the movement, and led to the emergence of the term 'reproductive labor'. Showing the connection between waged and unwaged workers also meant that women at home could join in the struggles against expectation. They worked to destroy the myth that care and domestic work are in the nature of women.
The presentation sparked considerable debate as well as exchanges of personal experiences:
One woman described how she worked full-time on a part-time contract because it allowed her children to exchange the school she worked for in exchange. Others said that we should fight for the recognition of housework, and to increase the social wage through cheap social housing, child care, and benefits. It is also important to change the view of women as passive consumers of taxpayer's money. Now, when the social wage is under attack, women only get jobs with starvation wages. Some felt we needed to be vigilant and that if we ask for housework to be recognized like paid work, our care work will also be financialized.
Women in special economic areas in Poland commonly lack childcare and are jobless. Work agencies then force them to do temporary work. Some women took action and squatted empty buildings. They had to work to keep their welfare, but had to neglect their childcare duties to do so, and were effectively forced to endanger their children by leaving even small kids alone. Some felt strongly that their should be a social minimum. Single mothers were already pushed into poverty and depended on welfare because their situation did not allow them to work. A firm conclusion was that 'Our country can afford everyone having a roof over their head."
We moved on to talk about how to connect rights at work and our work at home. Women often feel they have to refuse the debate around the recognition of unwaged work in the home for fear of this being seen as a call for women to return to the house. Having time to care for each other outside work is important for everyone and needs to be fought for.
Again, Jola and Kasia shared their experience of work in the electronics factory. They often work 16 hour shifts per day, have a long drive to work and home again, and then they have to find time to care for their kids, and also for their work for the union. At the factory most overseers are men. Once, the director told them that women are best at cleaning. They can only meet on Sundays, because they work all week, and only have time to get there on the bus, or catch the bus to leave. A big issue is that they are not allowed to put up a notice board for the union. They can only leaflet, which means not all workers and all shifts get the information. They are often made to work overtime with no prior warning, which makes it even harder to plan for childcare.
Younger workers find it easier to resist employer pressure, because it is easier for them to find another job. The factory employs 150 workers on contracts, and another 150 are employed temporarily for busy times through an agency. They do not have the same conditions, although they do the same work. There is a huge turn-around of workers. So far, about 70 have joined the union.
The discussion turned again to the importance of childcare, with the example of workers in kindergartens in Poznan, who had succesfully fought for lower fees for kindergarten.
A second talk began with a summary of the problems connected to paid and unpaid work: having children requires both more paid work and more care and house work. It's at the same time harder to get work, the more work there is in the house, the less work can be done paid, and the more a wage is needed. The talk drew out the relationship of captial, which demands we make money for their profit, and is focused on how much they can take from working people, and the state, which is focused on how little they can get away with providing. For women workers the pressure to be 'Super-Woman' emerges, with the contradictory demands of being both a perfect worker and a perfect mother, being flexible and available as a worker and consumer, while also confirming to the women's role of patriarchal ideology. As work is intensified and real wages are decreasing, the cost of labor becomes lower for companies, and the cost of work is more and more put onto the worker.
We can see this in childcare work, where the number of children per worker to look after has been increased, and work is more "flexible", irregular. The number of people employed short-term and by subcontractors is increasing. For workers this means increased stress, health risks and lower life expectancy. And even our unpaid work is not for us, but for the reproduction of the working class.
The changes in the role of the state were illustrated by two examples. The 'antisocial reforms', or austerity, are hitting women particularly hard, with cuts to social services, schools and the health service, with services taken over by private companies at increased costs for those relying on them. This also came with an ideological push to frame care in the home as better than state-provided childcare. On the other hand, there is a liberalisation of working laws, with increasingly casual contracts, where many work laws don't apply. This situation also makes us increasingly feel separate from each other.
One participant worked as a coach in a European Union project about gender equality. During her work she realised the project was not so much about empowering women, as it was aiming to make women more productive in the labour market. This can also be seen (not only in relation to women) in the slogans employed about the merits of being self-employed rather than having a stable, contract-based job.
Discussion then turned to the connection of the austerity measures to the debts of the state, and the wider protest movement against such measures across Europe. One participant commented that presenting this abstracted analysis of capital-worker-state also risked showing us only the logic of the place we are in, which is a place that also creates conflict between people, rather than allowing us to see potentials to move outside of and against it.
Sunday's session started with a presentation and Q&A with a lawyer specialized in anti-discrimination law. Many of the women fellow workers had asked for this session, while others felt that spending so much time on potential legal avenues was not productive for a union that is focused on direct action and workers solidarity.
The lawyer outlined legal provisions, many of which had come in recently to comply with European Union legislation. She also described a survey of job offers her firm had conducted, which turned up 26 000 adverts which did not follow the law. New legislation now also allows self-employed and workers with precarious work contracts to take employers to court over discrimination.
Some of the specific issues participants wanted to discuss were the issue of getting a notice board for the union in the electronics factory, The employer appearing prepared and fore-warned every time the work inspector - who was always the same person - came, which gave them the opportunity to temporarily hide bad conditions, and the fact that pay was sometimes late. They also raised the issue of the disparity in conditions for workers employed by the factory and those hired short-term through an agency. However, as put by the lawyer, there would be no legal recourse as those were two different companies. Workers in the wood-flooring factory described how the work inspector came to measure dust pollution when the factory was not in operation.
After a break the guest from CGT gave an overview of the situation in Spain and the work of the CGT. Legislation around discrimination was only introduced in Spain in 2007 and CGT do not find it sufficient or particularly good. They do, however, use the law, when it seems to be an opportunity to achieve something in a specific situation. One law that is important to them, is the right to reduce the numbers of hours one works regardless of ability, and to e.g. start earlier or later or not work weekends. There is an ongoing struggle to get companies to develop regulations around sexual harassment.
There is no paid maternity leave, in Spain maternity leave can be up to three years without pay, in Poland there is four months of paid leave, followed by the right to three years of unpaid leave. Spain also pays a one-off lump sum of € 2500 when giving birth.
Overall, Spain has seen so-called labor market reforms during the last years, which are connected to lay-offs and make it easier to fire people, while raising the retirement age to 67 and allowing workers to chose to work until 70. There is also an increased obligatory fee for health care. Most young people no longer believe they will ever get a pension. Also public sector wages and retirement benefits have been frozen for two years. There was a strike against the reform, which has now been passed, and totally deregulates the market. It affects all workers, whether they have a permanent contract or not. The reform was also entirely imposed, without any negotiation with unions.
Meanwhile unemployment in Spain is notoriously high, with 23,9% for women and 23,3% for men, and 50% for people under 25 (those figures include part-time and short-term workers). Amongst people under 25, 47% of women are unemployed and 53% of men.
CGT try to take legal action to fight for parity at work, but also engage in activities to raise awareness around equality in and outside of work. One big issue is also the privatization of public sector services, such as that of kindergartens during the last decade. This is compounded by increasing costs of child-care and a lack of places in public kindergartens. A common tactic in privatizing public services, is to split what used to be one section into various elements, and then privatize them one by one, not the whole sector at once. Often workers are slow to realize what is happening and moved to another section initially, so they do not protest. People who get work with the private company who takes over the service are commonly afraid to protest and risk their job.
More specifically around gender, CGT also produce educational materials, such as a fact sheet on anti-sexist language, hold women's day events, and campaign around violence against women. The union also campaigns for a unified social insurance system. The law recently changed, and now allows maids and other paid domestic workers to get social insurance and CGT work to inform those workers about their new rights. I followed Isabella and presented the work of the IWW's women's caucus and that of the Gender Equity Committee, as well as other groups in the IWW.
After lunch, the day closed with a session to reflect on the weekend and plan ahead. We did a tour of all present, to bring up a positive and a negative aspect of the weekend and share what we'd like to see happen.
Many present had mentioned that this weekend offered a rare escape from the home and chance to meet other women union members. They wanted to find ways to fight feeling trapped in the home. Some also said that it was shameful that other members had not been able to attend because their husbands 'would not let them'. We all felt that being able to meet, talk about our circumstances and realize how much we shared, had been a very important experience. Some wanted to talk more about the situation and work and organizing and less about wider issues around gender. In future, they hoped to have more common actions in addition to an internal meeting, to get strong enough to also organize a demonstration or picket, or travel to another city for solidarity actions together. In the near future they would organize a women's block on the planned demonstration in June in Poznan. They also wanted to write a statement about the public cost of Euro 2012, and to create a discussion list for the women's group.
Isabella from CGT proposed to consider joint activities between unions around International Women's Day, and to find ways to exchange more information. On the organizational side, the meeting had been organized by only four women, and future meetings should be supported by more people.
Films by Magda from Workers Initiative: http://en.labournet.tv/laender/pol