Unions, Feminism, and the Fortress Mentality

When a movement for social change is struggling, what’s the best strategic response? Is it to protect and nurture what’s been achieved? Or is it to attempt to become even bigger, and risk undermining the progress that’s already been made?

A few weeks ago, former union organizer Rich Yeselson  wrote a provocative article titled Fortress Unionism. In the article, he outlines the history of union organizing in the United States, and argues that to reverse the recent sharp decline in US union membership,  large-scale, long-term “comprehensive campaigns” of organizing will not work. Instead, based on how US unions have mobilized workers in the past, he proposes a model for union growth that he calls “fortress unionism”. Fortress unionism focuses on defending existing employment sectors and geographic regions with strong union density; strengthening and renewing existing union locals; and supporting alt-labor campaigns that help workers to fight for improvements such as better wages and fairer working conditions, even if they’re not in a union. Yeselson proposes that when workers realize they’ve “had enough”, unions can “seize upon that energy and institutionalize it”.

Yeselson’s article sparked a lively online debate. The clearest statement of opposition to his proposals came from blogger Eric Robertson a/k/a Eric the Teamster,  who points out that many different surveys indicate that, generally, workers want to join unions if they can (this is true in Canada as well). Robertson argues that the obstacles to organizing more union members are not inappropriately structured union campaigns or lack of worker interest. Instead, he identifies labour laws allowing employers to intimidate against union activity in the workplace, and a lack of union strategies to engage interested workers at workplaces where certification attempts have failed, as more problematic than “comprehensive campaigns”. In Robertson’s words,

Retreating to the increasingly small number of cities or companies where labor has enough density to hold sway means abdicating entire regions of the country and  virtually the entire service economy. The result will be retreating from some of the most innovative organizing currently taking place, as well as allowing our enemies to further strengthen their own “fortresses”  from which to attack working people.

These debates were still very much on my mind when I came across 10 Signs that Feminism Might Not Be For You, a post from Anne on the blog The Outlier Collective. Anne was inspired – maybe “enraged” would be a better description – by this video from author Christina Hoff Sommers promoting her idea of “freedom feminism“. Sommers defines this as feminism that is more than a “one-party system” and is “pro-female but not male-averse”.

Fortresses can be protective, but they can also be isolating. (credit: own photo)

Fortresses can be protective, but they can also be isolating. (credit: own photo)

(The title of Sommers’ video is “Meet the Feminists Your Professors Never Told You About”, which to me undercuts the credibility of her position right away – it implies that all professors everywhere only teach about one kind of feminism. Someone who criticizes “contemporary feminism” for “its recklessness with facts and statistics” surely shouldn’t be making such sweeping unfounded generalizations herself.)

Anne’s post observes that she is “seeing a lot of questionable behaviours and comments, many of them coming from purported feminists”. While she argues that “feminism is for everybody”, she also contends there are behaviours or viewpoints from people calling themselves feminists that undercut progress in the struggle for women’s equality. She points out that “there’s no one way to be a feminist”, but adds,

[I]t’s super important for people, especially those already within the movement, to be able to take a step back every once in a while, re-evaluate their beliefs and ask themselves if their speech and actions actually do help to promote women’s rights and equality. Because you know what? It’s easy to fall into the trap of offering the appearance of giving a hand up to women while actually actively engaging in pushing them down.

The many comments in response to Anne’s post ranged all the way from “you go, girl” to “don’t you dare tell me I’m not a feminist because I’m not pro-choice/because I’m Christian/because I’m a man”, and resulted in some powerful discussions.

There’s a lot of parallels between what Anne is describing about feminism and what Robertson and Yeselson are describing about unionism. Feminism and unionism are both unquestionably under attack. The Texas law that provoked State Senator Wendy Davis’s 10-hour filibuster speech is just one example of recent US events that one commentator has described as “anti-woman wingnuttery“. And last year several US states passed “right-to-work laws” removing the requirement that unionized workers pay union dues – a friend of mine calls these “right-to-crappy-work laws” – while Canada’s Parliament passed the alleged “union transparency” law Bill C-377 requiring unions, but not similar types of organizations, to publicly disclose details of financial transactions and other activities. (Thankfully, the Canadian Senate has now sent the bill back to Parliament with amendments for reconsideration.)

Unionism and feminism, or any group or movement that’s threatened, can easily fall prey to the “fortress mentality” of being strongly defensive and reactive. A fortress keeps out opposition and it protects those on the inside – but often, those inside the metaphorical fortress start to be concerned about who among them is showing the right amount of ideological purity or commitment to the cause. And when that starts happening, then they might forget about proactively responding to the outside environment, or truly helping the oppressed that the movement was designed to support. An “us against them” mentality builds solidarity, but too much solidarity can be a bad thing if it limits or stifles honest discussion.

It’s a healthy sign that these debates about unionism and feminism are taking place, as heated as the discussion might become at times. Instead of simply dismissing these posters as anti-worker or anti-woman for pointing out where things are going wrong, people are taking their observations seriously and engaging in some very thoughtful discussion. Even when feminism and unionism are having difficult times, that is a reason for hope.

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