Imagine — and some of you will not need to imagine because you have lived this reality — but imagine you are at work and there goes that manager. The manager who makes uncomfortable comments toward you; sexual remarks that are “just jokes” except they aren’t. They aren’t funny; they’re creepy. It continues and escalates. He crosses the line far too many times. You complain to human resources and they say YOU need to take a few days off without pay. They even suggest that you may need to look for another job. Furious, you march to your union to file a grievance. The union staffer says that “maybe you need to cool off” and that after taking a day away from the job, the union would file the grievance asking the manager to apologize.
Meanwhile, other women coworkers have heard about what happened and they are pissed: pissed that the manager harassed you, pissed — but not surprised — that the company took his side and pissed that the union officials tried to stall. Your co-workers discuss the situation with you and, together, you go to the shop floor committee. You all refuse to work until the manager is disciplined. They chant at the workplace, they tell other co-workers who support you. Men join the actions too, disgusted at the manager, the bosses and union bureaucracy. The workers have had enough. They strike! Due to the action, the manager is removed from the workplace, you are back at work and best of all, you have some down femme and male coworkers who will back you up and you will do the same for them. Instead of tears, your head is held high. Another victory for the workers — another victory for women.
This sounds like a Hollywood story. But for the women of Pan y Rosas (Bread and Roses) in Argentina, this is what they actually did-! A woman worker was harassed and when the bosses tried to dismiss her and the union leadership stalled, the shop floor committee — which included women of in the socialist group Pan y Rosas — fought back.
The Prevalence of Workplace Sexual Harassment
Women workers are harassed by their managers and male co-workers all the time. US statistics show that anywhere between 25%-85% of women experience sexual harassment at the workplace. Instances of sexual harassment and assault are, on the whole, grossly under-reported. Women are often reluctant to come forward for fear of losing their jobs and jeopardizing their health care and their family’s well being.
The prevalence of sexual harassment is coming to light with the #MeToo campaign. It is inspiring survivors of sexual abuse and sexual harassment to tell their stories. Both women and men are speaking up about their experiences of abuse. Sexual abuse and sexual harassment, so often normalized, naturalized and silenced is coming to light. It has happened to my friends, to my co-workers —it has happened to #MeToo. It has happened in Congress, in shopping malls, at church and on the job. Women are breaking the silence.
Yet, we can ask ourselves, what can we do? It is great that ultra-rich predators like Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey are losing their careers and prestige; that’s more than can be said for Ray Moore, accused not only of sexual harassment but also of pedophilia. Yet, this did not stop Donald Trump from all but endorsing him. After all, what can we expect from a president who has admitted to sexual harassment himself? Yet, these high-profile firings are not enough.
#MeToo has gone a long way- to uncovering sexual violence. From actresses to stage hands to low-wage workers, women workers have suffered sexual harassment for years, while the companies they worked for ignored them or intimidated them into silence. Only now, inspired in part by a massive wave of celebrities coming come forward about sexual assault, have many women told their stories publicly. If it was difficult for famous Hollywood stars to come forward, imagine how much harder it is for working-class women who live paycheck to paycheck.
Image from Cosmopolitan of the “Take Back the Workplace” march.
From Hollywood to the fields solidarity among working class women is growing. Over 700,000 agricultural workers have written a letter in solidarity – with women in the entertainment industry an enormous show of support across industries. They declared:
“Even though we work in very different environments, we share a common experience of being preyed upon by individuals who have the power to hire, fire, blacklist and otherwise threaten our economic, physical and emotional security. Like you, there are few positions available to us and reporting any kind of harm or injustice committed against us doesn’t seem like a viable option. Complaining about anything — even sexual harassment — seems unthinkable because too much is at risk, including the ability to feed our families and preserve our reputations.”
Many of those who have come forward about sexual harassment are part of unions like SAG-AFTA. However, where has the union been in protecting its members. In the past decades, unions have failed to even fight for bread and butter demands, much less harassment of workers by their bosses.
After making a statement that SAG-AFTRA condemns the behavior of apparently rampant sexual harassment in the film industry suggested its members “call their hotline.”- in a statement released by the union leadership. The union offered no plans of action but promised a “long term strategy” being developed. But how could they be trusted when the abuse in Hollywood has been so rampant and nothing has been done until now? They did not endorse the #MeToo march in Hollywood. The leadership of the union has been forced to come out against sexual harassment that its members are coming out and saying has been continuing for years. The bureaucracy cannot be relied on for mobilizing its members. In fact, SEIU’s Fight for $15 leaders have even been accused of sexual harassing workers. Rather, it has and it will take a rank-and-file fight against the wealthy and power players in the industry. It will take organization within the union and in the streets for meaningful changes in that industry and all industries.
The Pan y Rosas Experience
The women of Pan y Rosas seek to organize working-class and oppressed women for the rights of all oppressed people and for a socialist future. They are militant organizers and socialists in the streets and in the workplaces. The Pan y Rosas’ International Manifesto- insists that the problem of sexual violence is the last link in a long chain of violence, created and perpetuated by the capitalist state. Ironically, the state then positions itself as the institution to solve sexist violence via punitive institutions. Pan y Rosas rejects individualistic solutions to the problems perpetuated by the capitalist state. The Manifesto says:
“Patriarchy insists that we are, and that we should consider ourselves, helpless victims. We are victims of sexism and sexist violence, and then the state further victimizes us in court, in police stations etc. From victim to victimized, the powers that be want us to believe that we are powerless to radically transform the basis of our oppression. They want us to limit ourselves to demanding that the state apply its individual punishments to the perpetrators of violence, thereby being forced to comply with the same institutions of this social regime that legitimizes and guarantees our subordination. To achieve this requires erasing many generations of women’s struggle. It requires instilling resentment for men and breaking the ties of solidarity with other exploited women who are oppressed by capital. In order to take up the strategy of punishment and reform, we must ignore the horrendous conditions in which most women live, thus removing what has been the source of women´s resolve to fight throughout history.
The women of Pan y Rosas refuse to be the powerless victims that the patriarchy demands. The conditions that “victimize” us are also the source of the productive hate of an oppressive social order and stirs powerful convictions to act in solidarity with millions of others around the world. It is hate that has always fueled the insurrections of enslaved men and women throughout history. At the end of the 19th Century, the communist Louise Michel said: “Be careful with women when they are disgusted, when they are sick of everything that surrounds them and revolt against the old world. That day will give birth to the new world.” We, the women of Pan y Rosas, fight for this new world and to free ourselves from the shackles that today constrict the muscles of all humanity and weigh doubly on women.”
Pan y Rosas seeks to organize women’s “productive hate” — not against men, but against the capitalist state. Their perspective is that although all genders must be won over to fighting patriarchy and capitalism simultaneously. The defense of women and femmes at their workplaces is an extension of a socialist philosophy and practice. this is a drone view of the Pan y Rosas contingent
It is possible to fight and win against sexual harassment at the workplace. It is possible to not have to leave your job to go to another exploitative job. In Argentina, as in the rest of the world women have had to face sexist bosses, coworkers, and passive unions. But in Argentina, they have begun a movement in their workplaces as well as in the streets. We would be amiss to not mention the massive Ni Una Menos movement that has brought hundreds of thousands of women to the streets against femicide. Yet, Pan y Rosas is unique in that it links the fight against sexism to the fight against capitalism, organizing in workplaces and places of study against sexist violence.
Yet, our aim should not be to displace this thirsty, creepy boss for another. The function of bosses is to exploit us, to benefit from paying men more money than women (Black women and immigrants even less!). The harassment is an extra weapon of intimidation in addition to the exploitation. It is meant to make us accept our worse conditions. Therefore, the solution is not simply substituting a terrible boss with one less terrible but rather, ending the system of bosses and the system of capitalism itself.
Imperialism and Patriarchy: An Inextricable Link
As someone writing from the US, it is important to acknowledge the central role of the military in sexual violence; globally, sexual violence against women is a tool of the military. Imperialism is gendered and like a creepy boss, uses sexual violence against women as an intentional weapon of subordination. This is why the struggle against sexual violence must support organizations like Pan y Rosas, as well as the efforts of women around the world to organize against sexual violence. We must organize against imperialism here at home, with the knowledge that the hundreds of US military bases around the world mean the sexual assault for women around the world.
The Republican and Democratic Parties Are Rife with Predators
Along with wealthy Hollywood celebrities, politicians of both conservative and liberal stripes have been exposed as perpetrators of sexual violence. From Roy Moore, who has targeted teenage girls as young as 14 to Bill Clinton to Donald Trump to Al Franken, the politicians of the two capitalist parties have carried out despicable actions and silenced survivors. Both Democrats and Republicans are quick to condemn sexual violence — as long as it’s the other political party who is responsible . The Republican Party has clearly and loudly stood on the side of misogynists and rapists with Trump being their symbol of boarish ignorance and sexism. However, the Democratic Party has its share of rapists, misogynists and creeps. Both political parties defend profits over women’s rights and women’s safety. The more they expose themselves the more it is clear on this issue and any other issue affecting women and the working class- the parties of capital are no solution.
We fight for the rights of women and LGBTQ people to freely decide about own bodies. When liberal and “progressive” politicians are exposed as perpetrators, one could get the feeling “Who is there to trust?”
But should they have been trusted in the first place? Both Republicans and Democrats have used their power to oppress, to evict, to murder, and to bomb without hesitation. They have defended policies that allow the police to harass, murder, and even rape. Scandalously 400,000 rape kits across the U.S. have not been tested and sometimes destroyed. In fact, one study showed police officers are more likely to be domestic abusers.
This is not to say that left groups are immune from sexist behavior, or even from sexual assault. However, for the capitalists, sexual violence is an extension of their foreign and domestic policies that target and oppress women. For socialists, sexism and patriarchy are a contradiction that we must combat within our ranks.
The Working Class and Oppressed People: The Leaders We are Looking For
Then what can we do? We support those who come forward with the truth about their experiences and expose those who have used their power to target oppressed people. Yet, we should take it to the next level. Of course women can and should stand up for ourselves but a lawsuit, in which one misogynist loses his career and a woman is compensated individually does not challenge the systemic issue of violence against women. A strategy to end sexual harassment and misogyny at work must be a conscious organization of working class and oppressed people.
We must fight sexism in all its forms —the racism against Black women, immigrant women, against LGBT people, against people with disabilities and against children are all tied to patriarchy and capitalism. They will not be solved by the parties that defend capitalism or by the capitalist themselves. The Republicans make no apologies for the pedophiles and rapists, while the Democrats have proven themselves willing to cover for their own predatory politicians.
We can learn from working-class women’s organizations like Pan y Rosas who organize at their workplaces, and join strikes against gender violence. On this day, International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, we aim to inspire confidence in the working class and women; we can defeat sexism in our struggle for socialism and to strike fear into the hearts of those who seek to maintain our oppression under capitalism and imperialism. We are the leaders we are looking for!