In the spirit of the upcoming International Women’s Strike on March 8, this week’s installment of #SolidarityStories is an excerpt from Candace Cohn’s excellent International Socialist Review article on the struggle for women’s washrooms and facilities in the steel industry in the 1960s and 1970s.
Though women who had fought for their right to jobs in the difficult industry initially faced misogyny both from the bosses and their male coworkers, their fight for workplace accommodations eventually united men and women across race in their workplaces, and led to a major upsurge in union resistance. Here, Cohn describes one of her own experiences of newfound solidarity with men in her workplace:
“One small incident may serve to illustrate several of those forces which operated more widely: the companies’ attempts to get rid of the women they had been compelled to hire by giving them the hardest jobs; the sympathy, support, and solidarity many males, particularly Blacks and younger whites, demonstrated toward their female coworkers (and especially toward their actively antiracist female coworkers); the ripples sometimes created by a “woman’s issue;” and the integrated leadership shared among women, men, Blacks, and whites.
The recently-hired (white) author had been assigned, like most of her sister steelworkers, to some of the heaviest physical labor at Clairton Coke Works. The track gang spent the day manually hauling railroad ties weighing several hundred pounds, and swinging sledge hammers or pickaxes over-shoulder (in order to pound in railroad spikes and dislodge the rock-like coke that fell between and clogged the tracks). As a former construction worker, the author had succeeded in pulling her weight on the crew for the better part of her three-month probation. On this particular day, however, she had cramps and must not have looked well. Some of the Black guys on the crew expressed concern.
Upon hearing that she felt both near-faint and unable to leave work due to probation, they came up with the following recommendation: Under the local union’s agreement with the company, despite the general lack of union recourse while on probation, no one could be fired for not doing their job so long as they were moving—regardless of how fast. While her coworkers were clear that they did not intend to slow down, they insisted that the local union always stood firm on this line in the sand. She might, they offered, at least feel a bit better; even as an individual, she could not be fired, so long as she was moving—at least a little, “guaranteed.”
Dubious but desperate (and not a little naïve), stressed about losing the job no matter what, the author began walking, moving, and digging coke—slowly—grateful for the limited but welcome relief. As she continued moving in exaggerated slow motion, time dragged; the expected foreman did not materialize. After awhile, another of the guys on the crew began moving in slow motion, too, then another, and before long, nearly the whole crew. The foreman stomped over. Sternly, he told the author to drop her shovel.
She was being transferred to the labor gang, he announced, commanding her to follow. He delivered her to the new job site. Not another word was said. The guys on the track gang resumed their normal pace. They had made their point. Slowdowns were not an everyday occurrence at Clairton, but the dynamics of this story were—even in that environment of rampant misogyny. These dynamics—of solidarity and shared initiative—were experienced and deepened by many hundreds of workers during the washroom campaign.”
Read her entire account of the rebellion here: http://isreview.org/…/working-class-womens-liberation-and-r…
One of the most powerful slogans of our organizing in the last few months has been, "Solidarity trumps hate!" What is solidarity exactly? In these stories from the history of the struggle for human liberation we share examples of the power of solidarity and the many creative forms it takes. We will share another #SolidarityStory each Wednesday. If you have a story of solidarity you'd like to share, please send them to us!