Men, unions and #metoo – a response to Meghan Murphy

If you have a Facebook account, your newsfeed has no doubt been filled over the past few days with #metoo posts by your female friends and family members, solidarising with the many victims of Harvey Weinstein’s sexual harassment and abuse, and demonstrating, once again, just how widespread this problem is. Feminist writer Meghan Murphy has posted on Facebook some comments on the #metoo phenomenon, including a challenge to men who repudiate such behaviour. I reproduce her two posts in full below. (Murphy has expanded on these ideas in a post in Feminist Current. This is also well worth reading, but is too long to reproduce here).

Meghan Murphy 16 October:
I’m so proud of all my friends and sisters sharing “me toos” today, though I struggle with these ceremonial outpourings of admissions and grief we seem to go through in cycles, every time a famous man is outed as an abuser, a harasser, or a rapist. I don’t believe there is a woman in all the world who hasn’t experienced some form of sexual assault, harassment, or abuse. I know this, I say it over and over again, yet it gives me a knot in my stomach to type it… The pain and shame women and girls go through every day, all around the world, is almost too much to consider. But for those who struggle with or who reject the notion of a collective struggle, of solidarity among females, of the notion that women are an oppressed class of people, of sisterhood — I hope that if all these “me toos” are a revelation to you, the revelation will be a reminder that there is society, we are not all individuals, that women everywhere face the same struggles (albeit sometimes to different degrees, as some can be more vulnerable than others, and some face the added weight of race and class oppression) under patriarchy, and that in order to fight the thing behind not only the Harvey Weinsteins of the world, but all of the male friends, boyfriends, co-workers, classmates, family members, bosses, teachers, neighbours, and strangers who have assaulted or harassed you and the women around you saying “me too” today, we need to understand that these are not isolated instances, that this is systemic, that solidarity matters, that we need one another to fight back, that none of us can do this alone, and that sisterhood is real ❤ #metoo.

Meghan Murphy 17 October:
I know some women want men to stay silent amidst all these #MeToos (which I fully understand), and some men are coming up with interesting responses (for the record, jumping in with #MeToo is not an “interesting response” from men — we can talk about you another time… Right now, this is about female victims and male perpetrators…), including admitting to their own complicity in rape culture or acknowledging they have no idea what it’s like to be a woman in this world (that one I actually appreciate a lot). Some men are asking if there’s anything they *should* do, and I’ve been struggling to come up with an answer. I’m not one of those who wants men to do nothing but listen. Yes, listen, but also I want you to DO SOMETHING. #MeToo is about women, but men are the reason women are #MeTooing all over the internet, which means that I don’t actually want you to stay quiet or passive or paralyzed by guilt (though I really do appreciate that guilt — feel really very bad, please do). I want acknowledgement, I want apologies, I want change, and I want action. Fucking STOP this bullshit. You have the power to. Christ, if anyone does, it’s you.

I support the general tenor of Murphy’s comments 100%. But I think her challenge to men falls short of the mark when she says: STOP this bullshit. You have the power to.

Individual men do not have the power to stop this bullshit by ‘doing something’, for exactly the same reason that individual women cannot stop it by ‘standing up to it’: because sexual harassment and abuse is a social problem, and therefore no individual solution is sufficient. Women who have rebuffed unwanted touching, stares, language etc – only to find themselves spat on, called bitches, having drinks thrown at them, fired, and worse, know this very well. It is precisely what condemns them to silence and acquiescence.

Social problems, in this case the deep-rooted social relations between men and women, require social solutions – which means, collective, organised solutions based on solidarity. In her first post Murphy articulates this very eloquently in respect of women. She is less clear about the question with respect to men who detest the oppression of women. Yet the same thing applies. The oppression of women is not in the interests of the vast majority of men.

Weinstein’s victims included women who are among the most prominent, recognised actors in the world. On the one hand, this really does underline Murphy’s point that all women experience this kind of harassment. On the other hand, one might think: well, if even these high-profile women actors were compelled to remain silent for so long out of fear of being excluded from the industry, what hope have I?

Hollywood’s ‘casting couch’ is not a new phenomenon. It is an expression of the powerlessness of the individual worker in face of the social power of capital, and of the competition between workers that is the fundamental condition of the working class, as much as it is an expression of the unequal status of women. But it has not gone unchallenged in the past. The Screen Actors Guild was formed in 1933, in a period of widespread union organising, as workers fought to defend their rights during a deep depression, precisely to counter this and other exploitative relations imposed by the giant movie studios. The solution, then as now, was a social one, based on solidarity and union organisation. This included both solidarity among women and solidarity along lines of class, between male and female workers. Many of Hollywood’s top actors of both sexes supported this union. They recognised that otherwise even their relatively high salaries and privileges could be whisked away in an instant if they failed to acquiesce to the demands of the bosses.

The anti-communist blacklisting of Hollywood actors in the late 1940s and 1950s was a union-busting drive above all else, one that largely succeeded. Today, like almost every other existing union, the Screen Actors Guild is a bureaucratic shadow of its former self, hopelessly mired in the stinking swamp of class collaboration. It is the worldwide retreat of the labour movement that creates space for the Weinstein phenomenon to re-emerge in such virulent form.

Here is a positive example from my own experience. It is from a long time ago – unfortunately, you have to go back a long way to find stories of fighting unions – but it has remained with me for a lifetime.

In the late 1970s I and a bunch of socialist comrades, men and women, set out to get jobs in the big freezing works of the Hawkes Bay. There were two very large freezing works near Hastings at that time, Tomoana and Whakatu, as well as various smaller operations. Tomoana and Whakatu each had six mutton slaughter chains, two or three beef chains, pig chains, fellmongeries and various other follow-on departments; each employed over a thousand workers at the height of the season.

I and several of my friends got hired at Tomoana. We found ourselves, partly by design but also by immense good fortune, in the midst of one of the great struggles of second-wave feminism: the drive by women to enter jobs that had previously been the exclusive domain of men. Women had been working in the freezing works for some time before we got hired, but had been relegated to the poorly-paid jobs in peripheral departments. The best-paid jobs, semi-skilled knife jobs, some involving physically heavy work, were the slaughtermen’s jobs on the mutton and beef chains. The mutton chain in particular was the heart of the union, from where came most of the rank-and-file leaders of strike struggles.

Freezing workers, Longburn Freezing works, 1970s. Photo: RNZ

Prior to our being hired, the freezing workers union at Tomoana had had a discussion on the question of hiring women on the mutton chains. There was a variety of opinions on the question, and the discussion continued and intensified after we arrived. The very idea that combating women’s unequal status was a necessary part of union business was new back then. Many workers saw the proposal as an underhand attack on the union, suggesting that the reason that the company wanted to hire women was because they would be less inclined to support the union, especially in strike battles. Others saw the hiring of women as a positive step for equality. Some thought women would never be able to handle the heavy work, and wanted to make it a condition of hiring that they prove themselves on the very hardest jobs. Still others had some misgivings, but thought there was little that could be done to oppose it. The union voted by a small majority to support hiring women.

A key figure in this discussion was a rank and file militant called Major Pineaha (Major was his name, not a military rank) who was elected union delegate for the mutton butchers about that time. Major supported the hiring of women, and with each step forward by the women workers in the plant, and each act of opposition to women that developed, his support became firmer. As the women’s self-confidence developed, the respect and support they won from male workers like Major increased. Major proposed and won acceptance for a variation in the union’s rules of seniority, which was necessary to allow women with high seniority to apply for the butchers’ jobs.

Despite the vote in favour, the first women hired on the chain faced opposition and harassment from some of the men. Their work was scrutinised, and fault found, in a way that none of the male trainees suffered. In at least one case, a male worker was found to be deliberately sabotaging the work of a woman trainee further down the chain, until Major was alerted, rebuked him and threatened him with losing his job – quoting the union decision. Many other workers were very encouraging to the women from the start. But it was only when one of the smallest women hired demonstrated that she could do one of the heaviest jobs on the chain that the argument was decisively won.

From that point, there was no going back. There were still contradictions: some of the most supportive workers remained attached to quaint, sexist language – they persisted in calling the mutton butchers “chain-men,” and the female butchers “lady-chain-men.” But the sexist critics were silenced and the obstructionists shoved aside, and women were welcomed into the union on equal terms for the first time. It transformed the union. In the strike battles that followed, the women butchers took a leading role among the union militants. The strengthening of the whole union resulting from advancing the status of women, and the common interests of male and female workers in defeating sexual harassment, could not have been more clearly demonstrated.

Just down the road at Whakatu, the situation could hardly have been more different. There, the union organisation, which previously had a reputation as being more militant than Tomoana, had voted to oppose the hiring of women on the chain. Women still got hired, one of my friends among them, but faced immeasurably more difficult conditions. The verbal abuse, baiting, intimidation and sabotage directed at those women raged unchecked. This was sexual harassment without any suggestion of romantic or sexual overtures – there was nothing involved here but pure woman-hatred.

Such was the difference between these two neighbouring plants, when we got together to discuss the two situations, we actually had great difficulty believing each other’s accounts of what was going on.

My friend hung on for several seasons, in spite of the abuse. Not only did she have nerves of steel, but she was tall and physically strong. (I recall a time when we were both selling socialist newspapers in a local bar. I was being harassed by a right-wing jerk who was bigger than me, and was doing my best to turn my back on him, without much success. My friend came striding over and told him to step outside to settle it with fists – the time-honoured method of settling disputes in New Zealand bars – and she wasn’t kidding. He declined the offer, and returned to his table, humiliated. My friend could do that sort of thing, but most people could not.) Ultimately, it was a battle that was not yet won when Whakatu closed down a few years later.

What was the difference between these two neighbouring plants? They were basically a similar workforce at both places – in fact, it was very common for a worker dismissed from one plant to get hired at the other. The proportions of male and female workers were similar. The individual actions of men and women in both places were similar. The differences came down to the political discussion, organisation and leadership. That alone accounts for the difference between victory over the harassers and misogynists in one plant, and defeat in the other.

The fight to overcome sexual harassment and all forms of oppression of women is inextricably tied to the fight to rebuild militant unions of the kind that were just beginning to emerge at a local level in the 1970s and 80s. Unions that make fighting for women’s equality a central part of their concern; unions that can organise solidarity have the capacity to re-shape social relations between men and women and raise them to a higher plane, high above the level of generalised misogyny and abuse which feminists describe as ‘rape culture.’ Nothing else will do the job.

Rebuilding militant unions is a task to which men who detest the oppression of women could usefully direct themselves. And women, too.



2 responses to “Men, unions and #metoo – a response to Meghan Murphy

  1. A couple of footnotes in response to some of the discussions I’ve had in person and on Facebook on this post:
    1. Some people pointed out to me that the Screen Actors Guild had done little if anything to combat the ‘casting couch’ throughout its entire existence, not just in the recent period. This seems to be largely true, although I found one article which said that in the 1970s the SAG set up a committee to investigate ‘morality complaints’. Others have told me that the existence of a union in the factories where they worked had not had any noticeable effect on the sexual harassment they endured. I accept what they say, for sure.
    My point was not that organising the Screen Actors Guild or any union puts an end to sexual harassment in the workplace, but just that union is a social, collective response that creates the conditions under which it can be fought, and through which social relations of solidarity between men and women can be built. It points in the right direction, even though alone it is not sufficient. It still takes a political battle, including within the unions, to overcome such a pervasive problem.
    2. I said that conditions of support or resentment towards women were so different at the two neighbouring plants (Tomoana and Whakatu) that when we got together it was difficult to believe what each was describing. In fact, I believed (privately) for a long time that either the situation faced by my friend at Whakatu could not have been as bad as she was describing, or that she must have been doing something wrong to make it that bad. After a while I realised I was wrong on both counts. And there was an important lesson in that, too. Here we were, all of us discussing what we could do to advance the status of women in these two plants, and yet I was still slipping back into blaming the woman for the situation – by default, in the absence of any other obvious explanation. (And it was not only the males in our group who did this). This is part of what happens when sexual harassment and abuse is so universal and normalised. Its a lesson I hope I never forget.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s