BOOK REVIEW: No Shortcuts

Jane F. McAlevey, No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age (Oxford University Press). Reviewed by DAPHNE LAWLESS. From the new issue of FIGHTBACK magazine, “Trade Unions for the 21st Century”. To order a print copy for $NZ10 + postage, or to subscribe in electronic or print format, see here.

Jane F. McAlevey, a long-time organizer in the environmental and labour movements, comes to this book with a quite ambitious goal – to seek an explanation as to why the workers’ movement has suffered defeat after defeat to the forces of corporate neoliberalism over the last 50 years or so. She sums up her argument:

First, the reason that progressives have experienced a four-decade decline in the United States is because of a significant and long-term shift away from deep organizing and toward shallow mobilizing. Second, the split between “labor” and “social movement” has hampered what little organizing has been done. Together, these two trends help account for the failure of unions and progressive politics, the ongoing shrinking of the public sphere, and unabashed rule by the worst and greediest corporate interests. Third, different approaches to change lead to different outcomes, often very different outcomes. (Kindle location 140)

Great things were expected from the newer generation of union organizers who took over in the United States’ major union federation, the AFL-CIO, after 1995, whom McAlevey refers to as “New Labor”. And yet, the long series of defeats has continued over the next two decades (386). What has gone wrong?

McAlevey distinguishes three methods of organizing, which she calls the “advocacy”, “mobilizing” and “organizing” models. The advocacy model is the model which we are familiar with from social movements and NGOs. In this model, a professional group of advocates and campaigners acts on behalf of their membership, who are only asked to pay their dues and “help out” with activism organized for them:

Many small advances can be and are won without engaging ordinary people, where the key actors are instead paid lawyers, lobbyists, and public relations professionals, helped by some good smoke and mirrors. That is an advocacy model, and small advances are all it can produce… Advocacy doesn’t involve ordinary people in any real way; lawyers, pollsters, researchers, and communications firms are engaged to wage the battle. (222, 278)

An example of this approach given by McAlevey is that led by America’s SEIU union in the 1990s in the nursing home sector. This union went out of their way to build “partnerships” with nursing home bosses, where the union joined forces with the bosses to press state governments for more funding for the sector, and in return the bosses would remove obstacles to the unions organizing in (certain, selected) workplaces. The really perverse thing about this is that the union also actively discouraged struggles by their members while this was going on:

The employers would select which nursing homes could be unionized during the life of the accord. If workers at nursing homes not selected by the employer… wanted help forming a union, the union would be bound to decline. The union agreed to prohibit the workers from any form of negative messaging or negative campaigning during the life of the agreement” (1524, 1529)

For the union tops, expanding their dues base, by proving to bosses that union membership was “harmless” to their profits and privileges, took priority over the actual needs of their existing members.

The second approach discussed by McAlevey is the “mobilizing” model, in which union full-timers actively encourage workers to campaign and to take strike action in order to win better deals. However, the mobilizing model attempts to sidestep the difficulties and risks involved in all-out strike action by concentrating on other forms of action, which can be carried out by a dedicated, self-selecting minority of workers, with full-time organizers’ help:

Mobilizing is a substantial improvement over advocacy, because it brings large numbers of people to the fight. However, too often they are the same people: dedicated activists who show up over and over at every meeting and rally for all good causes, but without the full mass of their coworkers or community behind them. This is because a professional staff directs, manipulates, and controls the mobilization; the staffers see themselves, not ordinary people, as the key agents of change… (248)

McAlevey argues strongly that, while the mobilising and even the advocacy models can win reforms for workers from the bosses or from the state, only her third approach, the “organizing model” can create real, lasting changes in the lives of workers. This is precisely because it aims to create a majority or super-majority in the workplace, which is the only way in which an all-out strike can be won:

[organizing] places the agency for success with a continually expanding base of ordinary people, a mass of people never previously involved, who don’t consider themselves activists at all—that’s the point of organizing… Since organizing’s primary purpose is to change the power structure away from the 1 percent to more like the 90 percent, majorities are always the goal: the more people, the more power. But not just any people. And the word majority isn’t a throwaway word on a flip chart, it is a specific objective that must be met. (290, 314)

The “organizing” model therefore maps precisely onto those forms of politics which the late Hal Draper called “socialism from below”: an insistence that, as Karl Marx said, the liberation of the working class must be the product of working-class self-organization, not something done “for” them by kindly elites or a “professional revolutionary” minority. She contrasts this with both the advocacy and mobilization models. She links the increasing “professionalisation” of labour activism to the increasing influence of the ideas of the famous (or infamous) community organizer, Saul Alinsky:

Today, corporate campaigns continue to locate the fight in the economic arena by threatening to disrupt profit making, but not through workers withholding their labor. Instead, a new army of college-educated professional union staff bypass the strike and devise other tactics to attack the employer’s bottom line. New Labor’s overreliance on corporate campaigns has resulted in a war waged between labor professionals and business elites. Workers are no longer essential to their own liberation… Once the production-crippling strike weapon was abandoned, union leaders no longer saw a need to build a strong worksite-based organization among a majority of workers—one powerful enough that a majority decides to walk off the job, united, together, with common goals. (425, 442)

After 1995, following New Labor’s ascent to positions of power in the national AFL-CIO, justified by the Alinsky assertion “Organizers take orders—leaders lead,” professional staffing ballooned, with many new positions added—researchers, political campaigners, and communicators. People in these positions have at least as much real power as the organizers, if not more, further diminishing the importance and voice of the real “leaders.”

This is why workers, who were once central to labor actions, are now peripheral. The corporate campaign, emulating Alinsky’s tactical warfare, led by a small army of college-educated staff, has taken hold as the dominant weapon against corporations. (975, 999)

The greatest damage to our movements today has been the shift in the agent of change from rank-and-file workers and ordinary people to cape-wearing, sword-wielding, swashbuckling staff. To deny that having experienced staff can be the difference between workers winning and losing is ridiculous and counterproductive. Way more counterproductive has been the wholesale elimination of the crucial role of the rank-and-file workers (at work and at home). (3794)

In contrast, McAlevey explains how the core of the organizing model involves identifying existing worker-leaders, rather than building on the enthusiasm of volunteers:

Only true organic leaders can lead their coworkers in high-risk actions. Pro-union activists without organic leaders are not effective enough, and professional staff organizers certainly cannot do it (744)

Social-movement organizations (SMOs) … and now, unfortunately, unions as well, label as a leader just about anyone who enthusiastically shows up at two successive meetings (even one sometimes), making the words activist and leader interchangeable… But in any strategy for building power, all people are not the same. (952)

Crucially, the organizing model also involves community organizing – in the sense that of understanding that working-class people are embedded in neighbourhoods, ethnic or religious communities, sports teams, and other vitally important networks outside of their working lives. Support from these communities is vital for winning any real majority strike, and understanding this is the basis for McAlevey’s blend of the mobilizing and organizing approaches which she calls “whole-worker organizing” (501).

She particularly stresses religious communities, who – according to research – are the major influences on US working-class communities alongside the labour movement (1292). While many union organizers who come from secular middle-class or socialist traditions are wary of getting involved with religion, McAlevey’s case studies refer to Catholic priests and Protestant preachers playing vital organizing roles in support of successful struggles involving large numbers African-American and Latinx workers. Again, large emphasis is placed on developing existing networks of power and leadership in working-class communities rather than co-opting self-selecting militants.

Only this form of organization, argues McAlevey, can produce sustainable changes in working people’s lives, because what is won is not just concessions from bosses or the state which can be withdrawn at a later date, but real changes in how working-class communities live their lives and understand themselves:

where unions understand their members and unorganized workers to be class actors in their communities, and when the workers systematically bring their own preexisting community networks into their workplace fights, workers still win, and their wins produce a transformational change in consciousness. (510)

If individual actors believe that the purpose of the union is to enable a majority of workers to engage in mass collective struggle—for the betterment of themselves, their families, and their class—then in the related choice point, the role of the workers in the union drive, workers will not be mere symbols of the struggle; they will be central actors in it. If, however, the purpose of the union is only to improve the material condition of workers by increasing the share of company profits they receive, the workers’ role will be greatly diminished; they will function as symbolic actors, not central participants, much as they do in today’s fast-food “wage” campaigns. (1105)

if the workers don’t do the work of building their own union—including preparing for and having a fight—their leadership will not be tested or developed to the level of strength needed for a solid union, one where the rank-and-file workers themselves can govern the workplace after the election victory. (1683)

One interesting consequence of McAlevey’s argument turns on its head the received wisdom of a lot of writers on the labour movement: that the decline of manufacturing in the advanced capitalist (“Western”) countries and the rise of service work is a problem for organization. In fact, argues McAlevey, workers in the health, education and social services sectors potentially hold massive power:

these mostly female, multiracial service workers are as capable of building powerful organizations as they are of building a child’s mind or rebuilding a patient’s body. In fact, they are among the only workers today engaging in production-shuttering strikes. Their organic ties to the broader community form the potential strategic wedge needed to leverage the kind of power American workers haven’t had for decades. (581)

When Chicago’s teachers struck, it was a total disruption of the “production process,” not a merely symbolic action of the kind so common today. Sociologically speaking, the Chicago strike brought a major United States city to a grinding halt. (1683)

Many labor strategists, particularly men, can’t see past the need to reorganize the manufacturing sector… They implore labor to focus more on the logistics sectors, which makes perfect sense and should be high on the movement’s to-do list. But given the domination of the service economy today, we need a unifying strategic plan for and within the service economy. (3696)

In addition, these “mission-driven” workers, whose profession is care, have a fundamental orientation towards solidarity and collective behavior (3724) and have a social status which helps them mobilise the wider public in support (1858). Even the gender composition of this new workforce can be seen as a bonus for whole-worker organizing:

The large numbers of women in today’s workforce—saddled with wage work and endless nonwage work—don’t separate their lives in the way industrial-era, mostly male workers could, entering one life when they arrived at work and punched in, and another when they punched out. (1312)

McAlevey illustrates her argument with case studies from recent US labour history. She compares different methods of organizing in the struggles of nursing home workers in various US states; the successful fight of the Chicago Teachers’ Union against a neoliberal Democrat city leadership; a 15-year struggle for union recognition at a North Carolina pork products factory; and “Make the Road New York”, a social movement concerned with organizing Latinx workers in that city.

If there is a major weakness in this book, it’s that it’s written entirely from the point of view of the United States. Some of the issues with US labour laws coming out of the Roosevelt era which McAlevey discusses are relevant only to that country. That said, globalisation continually reduces the differences between nations, and the lessons of the North Carolina meatworkers’ struggle about building workers’ unity in a deeply ethnically divided workplace (2393), as well as the difficulties of organizing workers with uncertain immigration status, are certainly very applicable in our local context.

Honestly, what I would love to see is a similar book to this, written about recent labour struggles in Aotearoa/New Zealand. Our equivalent to the “New Labor” of which McAlevey speaks would be the kind of unionism which has arisen over the last 15 to 20 years, particularly in and around UNITE, but also pushed forward by young organizers in other unions. These new leaders – many of them with history on the revolutionary Left – have rejected the “partnership with employers” narrative and the “service model” (what McAlevey calls the “advocacy” model) which characterised New Zealand’s union movement after the defeats of the 1990s.

It would be very interesting to look closely at these new unions, and forms of organizing, and ask: do they fit McAlevey’s “organizing” model, or her “mobilizing” model? Are these new forms of worker organizing based on building a super-majority in the workplaces, built around natural worker-leaders, as well as the deep support from working-class communities that can carry out and win indefinite strikes? Or are the real protagonists in these organizations the union full-timers themselves (usually not from working-class communities), who constitute themselves along with a few self-selecting worker militants as a “vanguard” which can successfully carry out symbolic strikes and media campaigns?

The essential message of McAlevey is that, while the mobilising approach can win concessions and reforms, only the organizing approach can build real workers’ power and actually change the lives of working people and their community. But she also explicitly states that her book is about all organizing, not just labour organizing, and the problems of “professionalization” of activism leading to the exclusion of ordinary people extends to all the movements for social and ecological justice (373, 792).

It would be good to see the New Zealand labour and social justice movements grapple seriously with the issues she raises.

Raise the bar!: an interview with Chloe-Ann King

by BRONWEN BEECHEY. From the new issue of FIGHTBACK magazine, “Trade Unions for the 21st Century”. To order a print copy for $NZ10 + postage, or to subscribe in electronic or print format, see here.

Can you briefly introduce yourself and why you feel passionate about hospitality workers’ rights?

My name is Chloe Ann-King and I am a writer, workers’ rights organizer, community activist and welfare advocate with a strong background in academia and grassroots organizing. I’ve also spent most of my life in low waged work which includes a 15-year stint in the hospo [hospitality] industry. During my time in this industry I endured wage theft, sexual harassment (mostly from customers), insecure shifts, cut shifts with no good faith negotiation and have been fired with absolutely no reason given. For these reasons I became incredibly passionate about hospo rights. No one should go to work and feel unsafe and be paid so poorly you don’t have enough money to live on.

When did you begin your involvement in organizing and advocating for hospitality workers?

I volunteered in unions for years and my mum is a trade unionist, so from a really young age I was interested and passionate about defending workers’ rights across the board. I specifically started advocating for hospo workers around 3 years ago and I also began speaking out in the media about our working conditions.

When was Raise the Bar founded? What was the rationale for its creation?

Raise the Bar was established about 2 years ago and the rationale behind my decision was that the hospo industry was basically unregulated: consecutive governments had barely enforced employment law in the industry and unions, in general, didn’t seem that interested in protecting the rights of hospo workers. Many trade unionists told me this was because the industry was “too hard to organize and too spread out.” I don’t agree with this sentiment at all.

What has been the history of union activity for hospo workers (prior to Raise the Bar)?

Before Raise the Bar, E tū [New Zealand’s biggest private sector union] was meant to be organizing and protecting the rights of hospo workers. I was a member of this Union for a while, but it became increasingly clear this union had almost no interest in organizing hospo – some of their reps outright told me it just wasn’t an industry that could be organized. E tū was launched in October 2015 with the merging of the Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union, the Service and Food Workers Union and the Flight Attendants and Related Services Union. But in the entire time that I worked in the hospo industry I never once saw a union rep from SFWU set foot into my workplace. I’ve no idea what their reps where doing with their time, but they certainly weren’t doing anything to protect or organize hospo workers in the CBD. Most hospo workers I speak with (especially young ones) have no idea what a union even is.

There are certainly unions such as Unite Union who are doing a really great job of organizing service workers at SkyCity and fast food workers but once again all the bars, restaurants and smaller cafes have mostly been left untouched by unions in the last 20 years.

What are the main issues facing hospo workers?

Wage theft is the number one issue we deal with at Raise the Bar, we get email after email from hospo workers who tell us their boss is stealing off them. This theft can include breaks docked that workers never took, underpayment or no payment of wages, bosses refusing to pay holiday pay (8%) or sick leave, and employers making unreasonable deductions from wages when customers walk out and don’t pay.

Other major issues include racism within the industry, ranging from racist hiring practices, like Pākehā hospo employers throwing out CV’s when names appear too “indigenous” for them to pronounce, to customers saying racist things to hospo workers that management don’ t do much to mitigate. I’ve witnessed Pākehā hospo employers also exploiting new migrant workers from Asian countries, forcing them to work unpaid or for well below the minimum wage. I’ve written about such issues for E-Tangata which is an online Sunday magazine run by the Mana Trust.

Sexual harassment is also epidemic in the industry, to the point where sexual assault and harassment on shift has been, in my opinion, completely normalised. Hospo Voice, a digital union in Melbourne organizing hospo workers, put out a survey that stated 89% of all female hospo workers surveyed had experienced sexual harassment on shift. Imagine going to work and you only had an 11% chance of being safe on shift.

Other major issues include basic employment entitlements such as breaks being constantly denied by duty managers – usually because of pressure and understaffing at the hands of employers. Many hospo workers I speak with will work over 8 hours without adequate meal or tea breaks.

Can you give examples of the poor treatment of hospo workers, either from your own experience or people you have advocated for?

Personally, I’ve been sexually assaulted and harassed on shift more times than I care to remember which has included having my breasts and ass groped, and outright assaults. Five years ago, a customer pushed me into a bathroom stall and shoved his tongue down my threat and started feeling me up. I had to fight my way out. I just continued my shift that night like nothing happened – I needed the money and feared I would be sent home if I told my manager. I still have flashbacks to what that customer did, which is a sign of work-related PTSD.

A lot of hospo employers I’ve worked for have stolen from me, which ranges from them underpaying me, refusing to pay me, docking breaks I never took, refusing to pay 8% sick pay, forcing me to undertake training unpaid… I could go on. I’ve worked 12-hour shifts with maybe one 10-minute break and I’ve even been denied toilet breaks on the odd occasion which, frankly, was pretty humiliating. You really learn about your place in society when you have to beg your boss to take a piss.

What has been the response of existing unions to your campaigns?

Recently, mostly negative responses. I’ve had union men verbally attack me which often boils down to them telling me I need to ‘toe the union line’ – this has often felt like a low-level threat. And I’ve had union men undermine the mahi I’ve been doing in different ways.

Most recently two male union reps contacted two hospo workers/leaders in Raise the Bar who I was organizing with against wage theft. These Māori wāhine hospo workers had developed a strong media strategy, among other tactics, to get results with support from Raise the Bar. These Pākehā guys ignored the awesome mahi these hospo workers had done already to organize themselves. They proceeded to talk over these workers and didn’t bother to ask what they wanted or what a ‘win’ looked like to them. This left them feeling spoken over, disempowered and distrusting of unions – it was their very first experience dealing with union reps.

I feel structural issues of sexism and racism are a massive issue within our union movements in Aotearoa/NZ. I eventually stopped showing up to pickets and meetings – I just didn’t feel comfortable anymore. I used to love volunteering for unions but now I feel dejected about the movement and how some union reps treat people who propose different models of organizing or criticise issues of structural injustice within the movement. There seems to be a really swift clampdown against people who generally want to see new models of organizing such as digital organizing and bringing back rank and file organizing in response to low waged and precarious industries such as hospo.

What have been some of the successes of Raise the Bar?

The most recent success is the $30,000 pay-out we collectively got from Wagamama England. The owner of Wagamama Wellington shut the doors of his business with no notice given to his workers and then put the business into receivership. He refused to pay wages owed and holiday pay amounting to tens of thousands of dollars which left most of his workers significantly out of pocket.

The workers collectively organized with support from me and Raise the Bar, and in under a month we managed to get Wagamama in England to cough up some of the money as a good will gesture – $30,000 to be exact. A lot of this was due to the ongoing media pressure the workers and Raise the Bar applied by using a strong media campaign to ‘out’ Wagamama for wage theft. We also, generally, have weekly wins that include smaller pay-outs to hospo workers in wages owed by bosses refusing to pay. We also have consistently gotten issues such as wage theft in hospo into the media.

I also give out free legal advice (with support from an employment advocate who is legally trained) to hospo workers on a weekly basis. I count this as an ongoing success because the more hospo workers know their rights and feel empowered to stand up to their employers the more chance we have of structural change within the industry.

What issues will you campaign on in the next year?

The main issue we are focused on is wage theft and pushing the government to make wage theft a criminal offence. Right now, it is illegal for a boss to commit wage theft; but it isn’t a criminal offence, meaning that the most these employers will face is a fine. Hospo employers are stealing hundreds of thousands off their workers annually and face almost no consequences for their behaviour. Yet, if a hospo worker put their hand in the till and took $50 bucks they could be up on criminal charges if their employer rang the cops. Personally, I think this is a really clear-cut example of the massive power imbalances within both our workplaces and criminal justice system. Employers are protected but workers are not.

Freelancing isn’t free: precarity and self-organization in the “gig economy”

Agitprop from the Freelancer’s Union (USA)

by DAPHNE LAWLESS. From the new issue of FIGHTBACK magazine, “Trade Unions for the 21st Century”. To order a print copy for $NZ10 + postage, or to subscribe in electronic or print format, see here.

Under capitalism, we’re all supposed to dream of being “the boss” – as opposed to an exploited worker obeying the bosses’ orders. Obviously we can’t all be bosses – who would we order around and exploit? – but the next best thing, in modern “neoliberal” capitalism, is to be your own boss. Hence the appeal of those scam ads for “EARN BIG MONEY AT HOME”, which turns out to be selling cosmetics or bogus diet aids to your friends.

Capitalism is defined by the division between those who own capital – the tools, machines and resources – and those who have to work for a living for the owners of capital. “Self-employed” people are generally seen as being part of a “middle-class” between these two layers. In essence, they own just enough capital to make it possible to employ and exploit the labour of only one worker – themselves. The willingness of a self-employed person to “exploit their own labour” is one reason why small contractors are often more productive than waged or salaried workers – at a proportionate cost to their own health and personal lives.

The idea of self-employed people (often known as “freelancers”, especially when they are writers or other creative workers) as middle-class is an old-fashioned one. Increasingly, neoliberalism has made the idea of a full-time job, especially one “for life”, a thing of the past. Buzzwords like “downsizing” and “labour market flexibility” just boil down to more power for bosses to hire and fire, to drive down wages and conditions. In this situation, there is a whole new class of freelancers who can just be seen as casualised workers who own their own tools.

Freedom is a two-edged sword

A freelancer is only paid for the job. There is no guarantee of future employment, no sick leave and no holiday pay. In these situations, freelancing can even be seen as a form of “disguised unemployment”. Often, having several “clients” rather than a single employer paying you offers no escape from exploitation and mismanagement; the website clientsfromhell.com provides a regular supply of hilarious, depressing and true stories of freelancers suffering at the hands of bigoted, fraudulent, miserly, or simply ignorant employers. Freelance journalist Jacob Silverman complains:

Every generation has its comeuppance. Ours lies in the vast field of disappointment that you land in after you run the gauntlet of privatized education, unpaid internships, and other markers of the prestige economy. There you find that writing ability or general intelligence mean nothing if you don’t have the right connections, or the ability to flatter those in authority, or a father who once held the same job. Those who have mastered these forms of soft power succeed while the rest learn the meaning of “precariat” and debate joining the Democratic Socialists of America.[1]

However, there is another side of the story. Neoliberal ideology talks about the “freedom” of the freelance, be-your-own-boss lifestyle. And it really is freedom, of a sort. A freelance worker sets their own hours of work; they can often work from home, which gives opportunities to parents of small families.

Crucially, a freelance worker also has control over the conditions of their work – when your client/boss is only paying you for what you produce, you can produce it in any way you see fit, without a manager hovering over you. And a freelancer can also reject any job or any client which they consider repugnant, for whatever reason – if they can afford to. (The present author once rejected an opportunity to index the biography of a senior New Zealand politician – not for political reasons, but because the pay they were offering for it was negligible!)

But this is the same freedom that a stray cat has – the freedom to starve. The situation is even more dire in the United States, where the only affordable medical care for many workers is employer-provided health insurance. Being excluded from the “full-time” job market might mean a death sentence if you have needs which can’t be covered out of your own resources.

The author of this article became a freelancer when her employer went out of business; she simply purchased her work computer and kept doing the same job, often for the same international clients. I can testify to both the aspects of the equation above. The precarity and anxiety of sometimes not knowing where your next work (and pay) is coming from contrasts with other times when there is far too much work coming on tight deadlines and you have to choose between giving up a job and giving up your health. But all this is balanced by being able to work how I want, from where I want, producing work of which I can feel proud (that is, if I’m paid adequately to do so.) I can even just ditch work for the day to look after my preschool child, when necessary and deadlines permitting.

The freelance job-advertising website Upwork reports that

nearly half (46%) of Generation Z [those born after 1997] workers are freelancers, a number that is only projected to grow in the next five years …not only are more Gen Zers freelancing, but 73% are doing so by choice rather than necessity, while only 66% of Baby Boomers and 64% of Millennials can say the same, according to the report.[2]

Similarly the British Association of Independent Professionals and the Self-Employed reports that in the UK:

the number of female freelancers has grown by 55% since 2008. New mothers choosing to take up freelance work rather than return to full-time office employment post-baby has shot up by 79%. Comparatively, the number of men freelancing has grown by 36% in the same time frame.[3]

This new form of employment relationship is thus dominated by younger people and by women, two of the most vulnerable sections of the working class. In these situations, the kneejerk reaction of the traditional workers’ movement that freelancing is just a way for employers to drive wages down, and should be discouraged or even abolished, looks as out as touch as those who say the same things about migrant workers. Many of us choose to freelance, and prefer the conditions of work to clocking in every day under a manager’s supervision. What we don’t like is the insecurity attached to it.

Ideology and organization

The point now should be not whether freelance work should exist, but how the position of freelance workers can be improved. And in the Marxist tradition, the answer to that has always been “the self-organization of the workers themselves”. But the current labour union movement has enough trouble organizing workers on small, geographically dispersed sites. How can we possibly organize workers who work from home, online, with a different “boss” every week or maybe even multiple bosses on the same day?

Another major problem with organizing freelancers is the strong influence of ruling-class ideas that freelancers should see themselves as “entrepreneurs” rather than workers – even when living in precarity at the whim of millionaire clients. According to Tom Cassauwers writing for Equal Times website:

Freelancers often see themselves as free-wheeling entrepreneurs, with little need for collective power or forming alliances with employees. On the other hand, some unions have a history of mistrusting freelancers, seeing them as a way for employers to undermine working conditions.

Freelancer Sarah Grey adds that corporate lobbyists invest a lot in trying to get freelancers to see law changes and union organization which would actually benefit them as a threat to their “freedom”:

Aligning freelancers ideologically with the goals of the petit-bourgeoisie (which some Marxists also do…), even though most have far more in common with the working class, erects yet another barrier to prevent them from organizing and demanding rights as workers.[4]

This tactic was used to gruesome effect by Peter Jackson and Warner Brothers in the dispute around the filming of the Hobbit films in New Zealand in 2010. When Actors’ Equity demanded a union contract, a slick PR operation by the employers whipped up fear that this would lead to the major studios abandoning film-making in New Zealand altogether. This led to film workers actually demonstrating in favour of law changes which deprived them of rights (one memorable sign said “EXPLOIT ME, PETER!”) and union spokesperson Robyn Malcolm faced vicious harassment.[5]

Another crucial question is how to distinguish between actual freelance workers and “fake freelancers” – workers who are actually working in traditional jobs but have been pushed into declaring themselves to be freelance or “independent contractors” so that their employers can deprive them of rights. The most familiar example of this in Aotearoa is workers at Chorus who maintain our telecommunications infrastructure.[6] Traditional unions or NGOs have to be careful to defend the rights of actual freelancers while also defending the rights of full-time workers to have all their appropriate rights and conditions of labour.[7]

What kind of organization?

Freelancer organization is currently most advanced in the United States, precisely because of the issue of health insurance mentioned above. The Freelancers’ Union (https://www.freelancersunion.org/), founded in 2001 by former labour lawyer and union organizer Sara Horowitz, concentrates mostly on advocacy and getting good deals on health insurance from its members. Their biggest victory in advocacy came with New York City enacting a “Freelance Isn’t Free” law, which requires that all freelancers be paid within 30 days alongside other legal protections.[8]

However, the Freelancers’ Union is not actually a “union” in the way we would understand it, in that it does not engage in collective bargaining on behalf of its members. It is in fact more similar a non-profit organization which provides services and advocacy in return for membership fees; a “top-down” organization, rather than an expression of workers’ power. It works for freelancers “within the system” rather than trying to change that system.[9]

One major issue in the United States is that the labour laws left over from the Franklin Roosevelt “New Deal” era specifically exclude many categories of workers (originally to make the law acceptable to racist Southern agriculture bosses). Thus, many freelancers and other “gig economy” workers couldn’t join a union if they wanted to. This is where NGO advocacy organizations play an important role, like the Freelancers’ Union, or like the organizations who have lobbied for improved conditions for Uber and Lyft drivers – even organizing successful strikes in Los Angeles.[10]

That said, there are successful models of union organization among freelance industries – the most famous being unions in the entertainment industry (which existed before the US labour laws mentioned above). The US television industry was brought to a near-halt by the Writers’ Guild of America strike of 2007-8,[11] and the same union is currently taking legal action against talent agencies who they say are exploiting their monopoly position against writers.[12]

The entertainment industry is one of the economic pillars of the US economy and – in that country, at least, can’t be easily outsourced to more desperate overseas workers (the threat of which proved so effective in the defeat of the actors’ unions in New Zealand during the Hobbit dispute). So it’s perhaps not surprising that “old-style” union power still has a foothold there. But what models are available for those of us in less “trendy” freelance jobs – for example, writing or editing jobs, where there is continuous downward pressure on pay, deadlines, and the quality of work deemed acceptable?

One recent answer comes from a very venerable source – the anarcho-syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, or “Wobblies”) have recently started organizing among freelance journalists. An article from a member-organizer tells a story which is very familiar to freelancers in other industries:

Many new to the industry are expected to work “for exposure” (that is, for free or unliveable rates); writers covering sensitive topics are forced to shoulder the burden of legal liability and harassment from angry subjects and readers; health insurance is either a clusterfuck to obtain or simply out of reach. All of these problems follow the same dynamic: because freelancers are individually outgunned by the publications that they rely on for their livelihoods, they are forced to work under extremely exploitative conditions…

[S]taffers’ unions are only useful insofar as there are staffers; after being sold, [the website] Mic was relaunched without staffers — relying almost entirely on freelancers instead. If freelancers are not to be made de facto scabs, then they must be organized. And because staffers’ unions, bound by red tape and budgets, are not organizing freelancers, freelancers must organize themselves.[13]

The article goes on to discuss the question raised above, how to “map the workplace” (create ties between freelancers who might never meet each other in person) through one-on-one contacts through existing personal and professional networks. Crucially, the Wobbly organizers have worked on an international basis – just as feasible as local and national organizing when the community is globalised through the Internet – and has made no distinctions between print journalists, website journalists or bloggers. They have already announced a small victory: a Twitter campaign forcing the website Vox to rescind their rule prohibiting freelance writers from publicly discussing how much Vox pays them.

Other, more “traditional” labour unions have also had victories. In the US, the National Writers Union won a major battle for back-pay for freelance journalists in 2018.[14] The Dutch trade union FNV, the German union ver.di and the British trade union Community have all made serious efforts to organize freelancers – the latter, similarly to the American NWU, aims to concentrate mainly on problems with late payments.[15]

Andrew Pakes of the British union Prospect toured New Zealand last year, giving talks on the question of organizing freelance workers. In a website article, he explains:

Our approach is based on the premise of empowering freelancers (“what can freelancers do together for themselves?”) and our organizing strategy, communications and services are designed around supporting that.

We help freelance workers to organize themselves and treat the union as a source of experience, advice and administrative assistance – one that helps to create a sense of identity and pools knowledge to tackle shared concerns. This combines the best of union organizing with new ways of working and extending our reach into growing gig areas, in the creative industries, communication and digital sectors. This approach is not without its challenges and adaptability is key.[16]

The question is clearly not whether organizing freelance workers is possible, because it is being done. The question of whether traditional unionism, the “Wobbly shop” or an NGO advocacy-and-service model is the most effective is one which can only be established by experience. But time is long since due for freelance workers and their allies in Aotearoa/New Zealand to start making experiments.

Sarah Grey gives an excellent final word:

freelancers can no longer be written off as aligning ideologically with the petit-bourgeoisie. Freelancers increasingly come from working-class backgrounds, work for low wages, and share the primary interests — and the precarity — of the wider working class. We are not a precari-bourgeoisie — we are the future of class struggle.

[1] https://newrepublic.com/article/153744/gig-economy

[2] https://www.techrepublic.com/article/growth-of-the-gig-economy-46-of-gen-z-workers-are-freelancers/

[3] https://www.ceotodaymagazine.com/2018/07/the-rise-of-the-freelancer/

[4] https://www.jacobinmag.com/2015/05/freelance-independent-contractor-union-precariat/

[5] See our predecessor organization’s article at https://fightback.org.nz/2010/10/25/workers-party-statement-on-the-hobbit-dispute/, complete with comments from anti-union members of the entertainment industry

[6] https://www.stuff.co.nz/business/110473768/action-widens-against-chorus-subcontractors-accused-of-migrant-exploitation

[7] https://www.equaltimes.org/unions-should-push-for-the-rights

[8] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2015/12/07/for-freelancers-getting-stiffed-is-part-of-the-job-some-in-new-york-city-want-to-fix-it/

[9] A good account of the positive and negatives of the Freelancers’ Union is provided here: https://www.jacobinmag.com/2014/10/freelancers-union/

[10] https://www.teenvogue.com/story/freelancers-want-to-join-unions-but-labor-laws-wont-let-them

[11] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2007%E2%80%9308_Writers_Guild_of_America_strike

[12] https://www.businessinsider.com/tv-writers-union-says-agents-are-violating-antitrust-law-2019-8/

[13] https://organizing.work/2019/08/a-year-of-organizing-freelance-journalists/

[14] https://www.equaltimes.org/unions-should-push-for-the-rights

[15] https://community-tu.org/who-we-help/freelancers-and-self-employed/

[16] http://unions21.org.uk/news/lessons-for-a-collective-voice-in-a-freelance-world

“Trade Unions for the 21st Century”: new issue of FIGHTBACK magazine out soon

The new issue of FIGHTBACK magazine will soon be sent out to our electronic and print subscribers. Please enjoy the Editorial from this issue. To order a print copy for $NZ10 + postage, or to subscribe in electronic or print format, see here.

“The emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves” – this phrase has been a touchstone for the radical Left since it opened the Rules of the First International, 150 years ago. And yet, easier said than done.

Trade unions are the most basic form of working-class self-organization, and thus the embryonic form of the kind of consciousness and organization that the working class will need to conquer and rebuild the world. But it’s hard to see a straight line between this utopian vision and the unions that we know, belong to or work for in the here and now.

The necessities of mere survival through the vicious attacks of the neoliberal area have left only the strongest unions standing in the Western countries – “strongest” in the sense of the largest, after several rounds of mergers, and in the sense of being “professionalized”. Many newer unions such as UNITE in Aotearoa/New Zealand trumpet their return to an “organizing” model rather than a “service” model – thus bringing the threat of worker militancy back onto the scene after the long series defeats and “partnership” with the bosses which characterized the 1990s.

However, these new “organizing” unions are still firmly professional, in the sense that effective leadership and power remains with the full-time, well-educated and ideologically committed organizers, in addition to a small, self-selecting nucleus of “staunch” workers who are keen to carry out exemplary industrial actions rather than the traditional mass strike. Jane McAlevey’s No Shortcuts, reviewed in this issue, draws out this distinction very clearly in the US context.

The question is, of course, if “another unionism is possible” in the neoliberal, globalized era: what might it look like? Aside from McAlevey’s analysis, in this issue of Fightback we look at possibilities for organizing “difficult” groups of workers who are generally ignored by the “labour movement professionals” of the current era: freelance workers, migrant workers, hospitality workers. Each of these articles presents viewpoints from organizers or workers intimately involved in these struggles.

We close this issue with an article from the “Women’s Strike” movement in Britain which brings up other crucial issues on what the unions of the future will look like. McAlevey’s book – as well as the book Feminism for the 99%, reviewed in our last issue – have discussed how strike action is a powerful tool for 21st century workers’ struggle in the caring industries (health, education, social welfare) precisely because these areas of work are so important to the neoliberal economy, and because they can’t be easily “offshored”. The “Women’s Strike” article also neatly reprises themes we raised in our last issue on how modern socialist feminist requires uncompromising solidarity and common struggle with sex workers and trans and gender-queer people.

Thank you very much for supporting Fightback in 2019.

Aotearoa/New Zealand sex workers speak: two testimonies

From the new issue of FIGHTBACK magazine, “Socialist Feminism: Against TERF and SWERF”. To order a print copy for $NZ10 + postage, or to subscribe in electronic or print format, see here.

1. LUCY SKY

In a capitalist society, all labour is exploitative; to treat sex work as any different to manual labour is reductive and discriminatory. SWERFs (Sex Worker Exclusionary Radical Feminists) often use a rhetoric that sex work is “selling your body”. This lacks any nuance, or critique that under capitalism all labour is commodified and is therefore “selling your body”.

A manual labourer is required to engage in physical labour in order to survive; sex workers are no different in that regard. The commodification of the body is a systemic issue under capitalism, and needs to be addressed as a whole, not just when it comes to those who are most marginalised, such as sex workers.

This marginalisation however causes sex workers to face exploitation in very unique intersections, those that a general labourer may not face. Drug use, poverty, racism, gender discrimination and other intersections can all exclude sex workers from engaging in “normal” or “acceptable” labour, as defined by the status quo.

To give a personal viewpoint, I engaged in sex work to sustain a drug habit; a drug habit that precluded me from working due to pervasive drug testing attitudes in New Zealand. This drug habit wasn’t a leisure activity, it was formed out of an aversion to trauma: sexual, emotional, and derived from poverty.

This drug habit took primacy above my own safety, and I was re-traumatised over and over again by engaging in sex work. However, sex work is not the issue in my situation. It was a means to survive in the face of a welfare system that didn’t provide support, mental health systems that didn’t provide support, and communities that were happy to turn a blind eye to the marginalised population.

I felt hopeless, and that there was no escape. There were no systems in place that would humanise me or treat me with the respect I desperately needed.

Sex workers, just as any human, are required to engage in the coercive system that capitalism has created in order to survive. They (we) shouldn’t face further alienation from their communities for engaging in the same activities that are required of any human to survive.

Sex workers deserve the same protections and rights that any labourer deserves, as sex work is work. As one of the most marginalised populations, perhaps these protections and rights need in fact to be given even more primacy.

2. JUDY

I’m a transgender sex worker. People have lots of other names for me, it almost seems there’s an approved list of them. I have my favourites from the list: “scarlet lady” and “coquet”. But one of those words is the one most commonly associated with sex workers, whore.

I proudly call myself a whore. Most of my friends hate me doing so, they see it as most people do: a horrible insult meaning you’re the most degraded thing a woman can be. But when you look at the word whore, where it comes from, what it actually means, you find something very interesting.

“Whore” started out in the 16th century as a polite euphemism for another word for sex worker we’ve now lost. When you strip it right down, whore just means sex worker. Thing is, the reason it no longer means that is we don’t like acknowledging sex work is just that: work, just like being a plumber or carpenter, no difference really.

So I’m a whore, a sex worker. And I’m proud of being one. More than that, when someone throws whore at me as an insult, I can just smile, say “yes I am”, and let the insult bounce. That’s the thing about being a sex worker, people don’t like accepting you are a worker. You’re either some kind of moral degenerate or a fallen woman who needs to be saved. Either way you have no say in your life, other people know far better than you what to do with your life. You’re a child who can’t be trusted to make your own decisions about what you do.

Oddly enough, I feel quite capable of making my own decisions about my life. Before I was a sex worker I had a variety of jobs, including manager of a graphic arts department in a printing firm. Not only did people trust me to make decisions about my own life then, they trusted me to make decisions about other people’s lives. I really don’t think my mental capacity has diminished since then.

People of course will argue I must have been forced into sex work by desperate circumstances. No, not at all. I’m a sex worker due to a conscious, logical choice. I could work 60 to 70 hours a week in a supposedly “respectable” job, or earn the same money working five to eight hours a week. A no-brainer, really.

Then we get the argument, there’s no skill involved in my job. It’s easy money, all you do is lay back and “think of England” (or whichever country takes your fancy). Nothing could be further from the truth. In my previous employment as a department manager I developed a wide and varied skill set. Time management, interpersonal relations, financial control, conflict resolution, understanding clients’ needs; the list is really quite extensive. And I use every single one of those skills extensively as a sex worker. More than that, I’ve extended and sharpened those skills.

It’s a damn sight harder being a sex worker than managing a group of graphic artists. It’s not easy money and there’s a hell of a lot of skill involved and in areas you’d never expect. I often tell people the most useful parts of my body as a sex worker are my ears and my vocal cords, listening to my clients and communicating effectively with them. You really can’t do this job if you can’t do that.

So, sex work is work. Really honest to goodness old fashioned hard decent labour. And like any other worker, a carpenter, lawyer, plumber, doctor, whatever, we deserve respect for what we do. We deserve protection from harm. Yes, the job involves risk, but to be honest, there are riskier jobs: nursing springs to mind. We deserve protection from exploitation. Biggest step in that was decriminalisation. We now have access to all the legal protections any other worker has in their employment. Sex work is hard work, it can often be very draining. It requires a wide, varied and unique skill set, one I don’t think you’ll find replicated in any other job. It can also be immensely rewarding; I get to meet a huge variety of people and get to know them on an incredibly intimate level.

Sex work is real work, and those who choose of their own free will to engage in it deserve to be respected and treated as any other worker might be.

Why Do Socialists Care About Sex Workers?

By JESSE DEKEL and the Socialist Feminism committee of the Democratic Socialists of America, San Francisco chapter. Originally published as a zine.

From the new issue of FIGHTBACK magazine, “Socialist Feminism: Against TERF and SWERF”. To order a print copy for $NZ10 + postage, or to subscribe in electronic or print format, see here.

Why do feminist socialists care about sex workers?

As socialist feminists, we believe that all workers deserve dignity! There is no reason sex work is any different from any other type of labour when you strip away oppressive patriarchal standards of morality.

Isn’t sex work bad for the people in it?

Under capitalism all jobs are bad for workers. Bosses make money off of our labour and give us as little payment, benefits, and respect as they can get away with. As socialists we stand against the exploitation of ALL workers against bosses, exploited by conditions outside and inside their work. We support sex workers founding unions and collectives to advocate for better working conditions, and the empowerment of the workers themselves.

Fight the stigma

Due to a puritanical culture, sex workers face stigma at every turn. There is a racist, homophobic, transphobic, ableist, gendered and anti-Semitic history to this stigma, which informs the present of policing/prisons and economic marginalization. Society devalues and takes away agency from sex workers to make decisions about their economic livelihood. Most of all, it makes it even harder for the marginalized to survive. If we want to be a true supporter of marginalized workers, then we have to support sex workers.

Why decriminalization?

Sex workers are overwhelmingly asking for the decriminalization, and not regulation/legalization of their work. Decriminalization prohibits the state and law enforcement officials from intervening in sex work. Decriminalization also de-prioritizes arrests, reduces interaction between police and sex workers, and retroactively seals criminal records.

Why is the legalization model not enough?

Legalization would simply allow for a capitalist exploitation of sex work, with all of its attendant regulations and coercions. We’ve seen this with the legalization of marijuana: instead of simply reducing law enforcement’s presence in the drug war, it’s turned into a system that benefits only the privileged and continues incarcerating and otherwise exploiting the marginalized. As socialists, we reject the further entrenchment of capitalist enterprise within sex work.

“The Face of Gayness”: A Trans History of Resistance in Aotearoa

WILL HANSEN is a Master’s candidate in history at Victoria University of Wellington and trustee of the Lesbian and Gay Archives of New Zealand. His Master’s thesis, an extension of his honours thesis, is about trans politics and communities in Aotearoa in the 1970s and 80s.

From the new issue of FIGHTBACK magazine, “Socialist Feminism: Against TERF and SWERF”. To order a print copy for $NZ10 + postage, or to subscribe in electronic or print format, see here.

Aotearoa has never had a “Stonewall moment.” That boisterous blast of radical collective action at the Stonewall Inn in 1969, led by trans women and other queers of colour, sex workers, homeless street youth, and others, has achieved the status of legend in queer history. Although Stonewall was not “the beginning of queer liberation” that it is often made out to be, its importance as a symbolic moment that has been utilised by activists to push queer politics in a radical direction, and remind the community of how much we do truly owe trans women of colour and other marginalised queer communities, cannot be understated.

However, in Aotearoa, we never had such a moment. And when queer activists here attempt to utilise Stonewall in the same way, it has much less power. There is a perception that in Aotearoa, queer rights were fought for and won solely by lesbian and gay activists. Trans people were not at the forefront of our politics, no matter how important they may have been overseas.

This is a gross misconception.

Trans women, particularly trans women of colour engaged in sex work, have always been the face of our movement, regardless of whether cisgender lesbians and gays have accepted them. Speaking to oral historian Caren Wilton, Dana de Milo articulated that trans women were “the bottom of the gay heap, even though we were the face of it.” While the “white gay guys” could hide behind men’s clothing, trans women did not have this option. Although we often speak of “homophobic” violence, scholar Viviane K. Namaste argues that “the connotations of the pejorative names used against individuals who are assaulted – names like “sissy,” “faggot,” “dyke”…suggest an attack is justified not in reaction to one’s sexual identity, but to one’s gender presentation.”[1] Gender and sexuality is collapsed, and it is non-normative gender presentation, rather than sexuality, which is used by attackers to identify which ‘queers’ to bash. This is why trans women like de Milo, most likely to be singled out for transgressing gender norms, “were the face of gayness, even though we weren’t gay…we were the ones who were getting beaten up and put in jail.”[2] Queens (as such women generally preferred to be identified) were situated at the intersection of a complex network of oppressions; this system of gender violence is both classed and racialised. De Milo and her contemporaries were not only “the face of gayness” and most vulnerable to assault because they were trans, but also because they were sex workers, and the majority were also Māori and Pasifika. They defied convention on account of their gender, their sexual practice, their class and precarity, and their race.

Additionally, queens were not simply a racialised minority, but a colonised minority. Sex, gender and sexuality are used to reify colonial power, to naturalise hierarchies and unequal gender relations, and therefore heterosexism and transmisogyny must be interpreted as colonial systems of violence.[3] Steve Pile and Michael Keith argue that because “power colonises internally as well as externally” – that is, oppressed populations are encouraged to internalise the belief that they are worthy of oppression – “shedding the guilt and shame induced by internal colonisation,” while less obvious than the overthrow of external power, is just as crucial a means of resistance.[4] As scholar and activist Elizabeth Kerekere writes, since “discrimination against takatāpui has been normalised in the context of colonisation…claiming takatāpui identity can be seen as a means of decolonising diverse gender identities, sexualities and sex characteristics.”[5] While in the 1970s and early 80s, these women did not claim “takatāpui” identity explicitly, many nonetheless drew on their cultural heritage for strength in claiming their identity proudly as queens.[6] These women had to combat not only external oppression, but internalised transphobia too; in this context, the simple act of walking down the street, proud to be oneself, was an act of extraordinary power.

From Carmen to Chrissy Witoko, Wellington’s queens in particular were also actively carving out queer spaces in otherwise hostile queerphobic and cissexist terrain. Again, while such work may not look as dynamic as a protest (which trans people were also involved in, see the photograph attached), building space for community was a vital component in allowing queer people to survive and thrive. Indeed, Witoko’s Evergreen Coffee Loungebecame in the 1980s a drop-in centre for lesbians and gays and sex workers alike, providing direct support to both rights movements. Before there can be mobilisation of marginalised community, the marginalised must come together as a community first. Also speaking to Wilton, Poppy explained how queens “stuck together,” because “no one else is going to stand up for us. Nobody. You walk down Queen Street, and if they realise you’re not a girl, you’ll get punched in the street. And when you call a policeman, he’ll abuse you too. I’m proud of it. We were tough girls. The 1960s was a tough world, you know?”[7] Given that systematic and internalised cissexism and transmisogyny pressured trans people into isolation and silence, the very act of seeking trans friendships and community should be interpreted as resistance.

There is no space in this piece to outline all that trans people have done to achieve liberation in Aotearoa. Although trans people should not have had to have done anything in order to warrant respect and celebration, the point is, we were there, and we were resisting. Resistance takes as many different forms as does oppression, and just because it may not be as immediately recognisable as a change to the law or a protest placard, does not mean it did not help push forward change.

From Pink Triangle 54 (July/August 1985). Reproduced by kind permission of the Lesbian and Gay Archives of New Zealand.

For more international context on the role of trans people in radical and queer politics over the last 50 years, see https://communemag.com/fifty-years-of-queer-insurgency


[1] Viviane K. Namaste, Invisible Lives: the Erasure of Transsexual and Transgendered People (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), p.140

[2] Dana de Milo in Caren Wilton, My body, my business: New Zealand sex workers in an era of change (Dunedin: Otago University Press, 2018), pp.184-185

[3] Chris Finley, “Decolonizing the Queer Native Body (and recovering the Native Bull-Dyke): Bringing “Sexy Back” and Out of Native Studies’ Closet,” in Queer Indigenous Studies: critical interventions in theory, politics, and literature (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2011)p.32

[4] Steve Pile and Michael Keith, Geographies of Resistance (London: Routledge, 1997), p.24

[5] Elizabeth Kerekere, ‘Part of The Whānau: The Emergence of Takatāpui Identity – He Whāriki Takatāpui,’ doctorate thesis, Victoria University of Wellington, 2017, p.128

[6] See Georgina Beyer in Jessica Hutchings and Clive Aspin, Sexuality and the Stories of Indigenous People (Wellington: Huia, 2007), pp.71, 74-74; Poppy in Wilton, p.272; Resitara Apa in Dan McMullin and Yuki Kihara, Samoan Queer Lives (Auckland: little island press, 2018), pp.27-28

[7] Poppy in Wilton, p.272

“SOCIALIST FEMINISM: against TERF and SWERF” – new issue of FIGHTBACK out soon

Cover of new issue of FIGHTBACK
The new issue of FIGHTBACK magazine will soon be sent out to our electronic and print subscribers. Please enjoy the Editorial from this issue. To order a print copy for $NZ10 + postage, or to subscribe in electronic or print format, see here.

The concept of “intersectionality” – that various different forms of oppression and exploitation overlap and interact with each other – is hotly debated in Left activist circles Many from the Marxist tradition oppose this concept; for them, the class struggle (capitalists against workers) is the single key to understanding society, and all other forms of oppression are secondary to that – including oppression on the basis of gender and sexuality.

Certainly, Fightback believes that the struggle for gender and sexual liberation can’t be won within capitalism. But we strongly oppose the idea that, because of this, gender and sexuality struggles are “secondary” to the class struggle – or even a distraction from it. This is because we agree with Karl Marx that the working class can only overthrow capitalism and bring about a new world through universal solidarity. Capitalism has survived so long because it continues to divide workers against each other, including on the basis of gender and sexuality. Therefore, a working class that is strong enough to defeat capitalism must overcome gender and sexual oppression as part of the revolutionary struggle, not telling those oppressed on this axis to “suck it up” for the good of The People – or, even worse, perpetuating that oppression in the movement itself.

These are not new arguments. The dialogue between socialism and feminism has been going on since before Marx and Engels, at least back to the days of Mary Woolstonecraft. In the 1980s, some feminists agreed with some Marxists that feminism and Marxism could not be combined. Fightback disagrees. But due to limited space, we decided to focus this issue of Fightback on Socialist Feminism on two major issues which are dividing the radical Left right now – transgender rights and sex work.

Fightback makes no bones about it. Trans women are women (in fact, everyone “is” the gender as which they identify) and sex workers are workers. As we will explore in this issue, we agree strongly with the anarcho-communist website LibCom that “feminists” who deny trans people their right to gender self-identification “are for all practical purposes, the women’s division of the global far-right”. We will show that “TERFs” who claim to be on the Left preach a form of politics which has much in common with the Right-populist and even fascist forces which are growing in strength around the world – and worse, that they often openly work with these forces of reaction.

We also believe that those who wish to abolish sex work show a lack of elementary solidarity with some of the most exploited and oppressed members of the working class. “SWERF” and “TERF” politics share the vital feature of attempting to police women’s bodies and the very concept of gender itself – no matter how many actual women (and others) they hurt, exclude or “talk over” in the process. It is thus no accident that many socialists seem to have been sucked into anti-trans politics when trans sex workers didn’t want to listen to their anti-sex work politics. For this reason, we prioritised amplifying the voices of actual sex workers in this issue.

The last part of this issue canvasses some broader issues about what Socialist Feminism for the 21st century might mean. Part of the heritage of the actually-existing radical activist movement is, regrettably, a rather macho, misogynist culture which sometimes expresses it in some of the “best” male comrades acting abusively to women and others. This has been seen most strongly with overseas groups like the British SWP or the American ISO or PSL being torn apart by allegations that male members of the leadership sexually abused woman comrades, and that these crimes were covered up for “the good of the party”. Anne Russell’s article shows that these tendencies are present on the New Zealand left, while Jasmina Brankovic’s gives international context. We close with a review of a major recent book on what “Feminism for the 99%” – or Socialist Feminism – might mean for the global situation we currently face.

Daphne Lawless, coordinating editor

SWERF and TERF: The Red-Brown alliance in Policing Gender

Trans communism
Transcommunist flag by NinjaDrawsDBZ

by DAPHNE LAWLESS, from Fightback magazine’s upcoming issue on Socialist Feminism. Subscribe here.

Late last year, a veteran of communist politics in Aotearoa/New Zealand decided to contribute to a march for the traditional working-class demand for reproductive rights by standing outside it with a sign bearing only the words “WOMAN = ADULT HUMAN FEMALE” – a dogwhistle for anti-trans feminists (or “trans-excluding radical feminists”, TERFs). Another veteran from the same organisation now has the same phrase at the head of her Twitter biography – displacing all mention of her record as a socialist and a union organiser. And they’re not the only ones. How has the motivation to punch down on trans people – and defend the “free speech” of fascists and others who do so – come to substitute for the fight for workers’ power and a post-capitalist world in the minds of veteran activists?

Freeze peach

Daphna Whitmore and Don Franks are veteran socialists and union organisers, who were founding authors of the blog Redline when it was set up in 20121. Whitmore’s Twitter account identifies her as part of the “Left Network for Free Speech” (LNFS). The Redline post in which this “Network” was announced says:

As partisans of the working class, we know that the working class has historically been denied democratic rights, including free speech. Even after hundreds of years of struggle, workers today face being fired for expressing, in their own time and on their own computers, views which their employers disapprove of.

Leaving the power to decide what is acceptable speech in the hands of employers and the state disempowers workers and oppressed sections of society such as women, Maori, gay people and migrant workers… Free speech is necessary to expose racism, sexism and bigotry. In contrast, ‘hate speech’ restrictions don’t challenge these ideas. ‘Hate speech’ laws in practice are an arbitrary tool that are used to impose social regulation. They can be used to silence progressives on a range of issues.2

Given their defence of free speech as a weapon in defence of the interests of workers and gay people, it is strange that almost all the articles posted by the LNFS on their Facebook page since it was founded are in defence of Israel Folau – the millionaire athlete who was released from his contract with the Australian Rugby Union after violating his contract by making religiously-based homophobic social media posts – or of “gender-critical” (i.e. transphobic) commentators and academics. The link between these and working-class activism seems thin, to say the least.

Free-speech absolutism on the Left has had a historical record of degenerating, first into tolerance for Right-wing ideas, then actual sympathy with them. The classic historical example of this is the Revolutionary Communist Party in Britain, originally a split from the Socialist Workers Party. This organisation – always somewhat of an outlier on the British far-left – began to be distinguished in the mid-1980s by opposing the consensus that fascist movements such as the British National Party should not be given platforms on campus. This clearly prefigures the LNFS’ insistence that state action against “hate speech” in fact makes things worse, as well as its concern about “academic mobbing” of professors who promote transphobia.

The subsequent transformation of the RCP into an outright Right-wing libertarian outfit is quite notorious. Opposing the liberal consensus had become for them an end in itself, detached from socialist principle. The organisation itself wound up in the 1990s, as their Living Marxism magazine was sued out of existence for denial of the horrors of attempted genocide during the Yugoslav civil wars. They cropped up later in the form of the “Institute of Ideas”, promoting climate-change denial through documentaries such as The Great Global Warming Swindle. They continue to exist as Spiked, a libertarian Right-wing website funded by American billionaires the Koch brothers, some of whose writers have recently been elected to the European Parliament for the Brexit Party.3

It is interesting to note that the place where this degeneration began – minimising the threat of fascism in favour of the supposed greater threat of liberal “thought policing” – is a very common trope on the anti-liberal Left, the kind of people whom Fightback has criticised in our previous articles on Conservative Left and Red-Brown tendencies. As we have previously stated, this kind of underestimation of the fascist threat – or even seeing fascist movements as having a positive side, in mobilising opposition to a centrist/liberal consensus – was the kind of thinking from Communists which led to the victory of Hitler in Germany.

The most shocking and disturbing thing on the LNFS Facebook page, however, is the un-ironic posting of this image4:

This is an extremely common meme in online “free speech” circles (and was recently quoted by none other than Donald Trump Jr. on Twitter). But this is not a quote from the 18th century French writer Voltaire at all. It is in fact a quote from Kevin Alfred Strom, an American neo-Nazi writing in 1993. The clue to whom he was really referring is given in the following, full version of the meme:

There is no reason to believe that Whitmore, Franks et al. were aware of the true nasty nature of this meme. But in a way, that makes it even worse. Fightback has previously characterised the spread of “Red-Brown” ideas as like a “zombie plague”, in that socialists or others on the Left who start descending into Right-populist or even fascist politics don’t even realise that they’re doing so. It is a case of losing one’s political (or even moral) compass.

“Progressive” transphobia

Unfortunately, trans-exclusive ideas are not confined to the comrades of Redline/LFNS. TERF politics are very strong on the British left, and one union activist recently arrived from Britain tried earlier this year to defend the free speech of transphobes on the “Unions NZ” Facebook group.6 Prominent veterans of the socialist movement in New Zealand – such as Unite Union stalwart Mike Treen and retired academic David Bedggood7 – have also made social media or blog posts opposing “transactivism” or defending local anti-trans activists such as Renee Gerlich. Such comrades often try to justify themselves by arguing that they are against discrimination against trans people, but that “transactivism/the transgender movement” goes too far. These are not dissimilar in form from the arguments against Gay Liberation from 1970s Communists, which are still used by fringe Stalinist groups like the “Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist)”.

This is particularly ironic in an era where some of the staunchest young communists in Aotearoa/New Zealand identify as trans, non-binary or in some other way “genderqueer”.9 As we noted in “Against Conservative Leftism”, incomprehension of new ways of living which have become common among young people in the era of neoliberal globalisation is a common feature among many veteran activists.

Beyond that, many activists have pointed to an extremely strong link between anti-sex-worker (sex-worker-exclusive radical feminism, or SWERF) and anti-trans politics. English sociology professor Sally Hines put it like this on Twitter:

If someone is a trans exclusionary feminist they will almost certainly have anti-sex work and anti-porn politics – and vice versa. The constant is a denial of body autonomy and a feminism that insists it knows what is best for other women (even when told otherwise).11

It is no coincidence that, due to social exclusion from other work, trans women have been disproportionately represented among sex workers. It is rumoured that several prominent TERFs in New Zealand developed their hostility to trans people after getting a hostile response to their anti-sex worker activism.

English trans musician “DeadBitBabe” also comments:

SWERF’N’TERFS can’t acknowledge the autonomy of sex workers because to them power only comes from maintaining the integrity of their fantasy construction of a female body… Are the cries of Lesbian erasure not strangely reminiscent of the fascist’s cries of white genocide?

The “lesbian erasure” trope is an interesting one. The AfterEllen website recently published an article entitled “A Butch Eradication, Served With a Progressive Smile”, claiming that the network of lesbian spaces and business which had been built up since the 1980s had collapsed due to an increasing tendency of “butch” (masculine-appearing) lesbians to identify as trans men. The author laments:

Our lesbian spaces are already dead. Our bookstores, our dances. Everything we built is dead and taken over by the trans nightmare.

If nothing else, this is a change from the usual TERF narrative, which tends to ignore the existence of trans men and non-binary people altogether, and instead to whip up moral panic about trans women “colonizing” or even “raping” cis women’s spaces. What should really make people stop and think about both these TERF narratives is how similarly they resemble fascist narratives about “The Great Replacement”, as made notorious by the manifesto of the terrorist who murdered 51 Muslims at prayer in Christchurch earlier this year.

Following the analysis of Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, Fightback has previously argued that fascist politics everywhere can be characterised as a movement led by the insecure and frightened middle-class. People who may have worked hard to build a little privilege for themselves under capitalism become terrified that an ethnic or cultural Other (classically, “the Jews”) might take it away from them. The AfterEllen article quoted above mourns for the death of a network of lesbian/woman-identified small businesses. In most cases TERFs tend to be older, whiter feminists who have had some success in academia, writing, or in the bourgeois lesbian community (the most globally prominent example being Germaine Greer).

Analysing TERF politics as a variety of fascist ideology might seem shocking or over-the-top; particularly because to do so would require us to categorize many veteran socialists in Aotearoa/New Zealand to have slipped over into the “Red-Brown” camp. But defining fascism as a movement in defence of the threatened privilege of the downwardly mobile middle class seems to make the parallel unavoidable. As does the habit of TERF ideologues of suggesting that trans people are part of some kind of conspiracy of “elites”, as in the tweet reproduced below:

TERF conspiracy theories on Twitter about "elites backing the trans movement" are not dissimilar to fascist ones.

The full antisemitic force of that term “elites” can be grasped when you read a transphobic academic explicitly name George Soros, the Jewish liberal billionaire who has become a common bad guy in fascist conspiracy theory, as a guilty party. “Deadbitbabe” on Twitter again:

Real talk: the primordially whole female body is to TERFs what the primordially whole nation and its people is to fascists… A mythological fantasy that serves to displace all sorts of anxieties.

The anarchist-communist website LibCom puts it more bluntly: “Transphobic feminists are, for all practical purposes, the women’s division of the global far-right.” Given this, the support given by the fascist and religious-fundamentalist Right for TERFs, described in other articles reprinted in this issue, begins to look less like an “enemy’s enemy” situation and more like a meeting of ideological bedfellows.

Perhaps the final word can be left to the author of the blog nothingiseverlost, in a criticism of the similar descent of the socialist-feminist academic Nina Power into TERF and other forms of right-wing politics: “you never seem to get people becoming less sympathetic to the far-right at the same time as getting into “gender critical”/trans-exclusionary versions of feminism.” It is extremely interesting that Power’s main move in defending her dabbling with transphobic and fascistic memes is an invocation of … free speech.

What is to be done?

Fightback has previously discussed what we see as another irruption of Right-wing ideology into socialist circles, here and elsewhere in the Western world – the demonization of the Syrian revolution. The repetitive argument from such people is that the Syrian people fighting against the Assad regime and its Russian allies are not “real” subjects of liberation (such as, to take a more popular example, the Palestinian people), but instead pawns of some Zionist-jihadi-US State Department conspiracy against Syria’s “national sovereignty”. The really perverse issue is that some of the TERF-adjacent leftists we have quoted– and we might name David Bedggood here – have agreed with us in staunchly rejecting this dehumanizing rhetoric when used against the Syrian people in struggle… only to use similar rhetoric against trans people in struggle.20

At the very least, what this can tell us is that “it’s difficult to be right about everything”. But it also warns us against a sectarian response to SWERF/TERF ideas on the Left – that is, refusal to deal with anyone who might hold such views at the moment. We all live under a suffocating blanket of capitalist ideology, in which it becomes “natural” for different groups of the oppressed to be suspicious or hostile towards each other. Even with the best intentions, it can be very hard to consistently hold to a materialist analysis which can clearly identify patterns of oppression, exploitation and privilege, and not be confused by the “DARVO” (“Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender”) tactics habitually used by fascist movements and domestic abusers.

Fightback believes that to effectively fight capitalism today means to fight fascism, the most dangerous form of capitalist ideology, which is currently on the rise. To fight fascism, we must have a united front of working and oppressed people. To have a united front we cannot tolerate racism, misogyny, transphobia, xenophobia, Islamophobia, state-worship or any other ideology which suggests that some oppressed people are “deserving targets” within our united front, because that is literally the thin edge of the Fascist wedge.

The Left has had far too much opportunism recently – refusal to face Right-populist or even fascist ideas within the movements for fear of alienating people, of breaking up the mass movement. We need to hold to a practice of honest, sharp criticism of SWERF and TERF ideas where-ever they are raised, even by “comrades” or “good Leftists”, as contrary to the unity of all the oppressed we need to build a better world. We also need to centre the experiences of trans people and sex workers within our movement in such debates – nothing should be “about them, without them”.

At the same time, it is crucial to build the biggest possible anti-fascist, anti-capitalist united front – which will mean sometimes linking arms with SWERFs, TERFs and even partisans of Bashar al-Assad against a common enemy. No-one said it was going to be easy.

Special thanks to Sage Anastasi, Lisandru Grigorut and Anne Russell for their help with this article.

1 The founders of Redline were former members of the Workers Party of New Zealand – the organisation from which Fightback is also descended. We are aware of the historical ironies involved.

2 For refutations from the Left of the case against hate-speech restrictions, see Max Rashbrooke at Overland (liberal) and R. Totale at LibCom (anarcho-communist).

3 See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Living_Marxism, https://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Spiked, and https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/dec/07/us-billionaires-hard-right-britain-spiked-magazine-charles-david-koch-foundation

4 If this image is taken down before then, it was accessed July 13, 2019.

6 This post raised strong negative feedback and has since been deleted by the group administrators.

7 Treen has republished several anti-“transactivist” articles on social media, including those from Redline. Bedggood is the author of this blog post.

9 Not to even mention the contribution to the Communist movement over decades by “transactivists” such as the late Les Feinberg.

11 Hines even suggests that SWERFs and TERFs might be brought together under the label “Genital-Obsessed Feminists”.

20 An excellent article on LibCom shows how a Red-Brown conference in Sweden brought together transphobic speakers with some of the most notorious defenders of Assad, such as Eva Bartlett and Vanessa Beeley.

A Report from the New Conservative meeting in Christchurch

by BYRON CLARK. Originally published at his Patreon.

“They are coming for your children!” boomed the man on the stage. He projects his voice across the hall, he is emotional, but clear. He could be a stage actor.

It’s almost frightening.

I’m not frightened of anyone coming for our nation’s children. But I’m frightened for some of my friends.

I expected this topic would come up at this meeting, because I’ve followed this group for a while. The MC had hinted at it too:

“I’m a teacher, and I got involved because I’m very concerned about some of the stuff in the curriculum.”

At that comment, one of the young men in front of me had leaned to his friend beside him and whispered “trans stuff”.

Before telling the audience “they are coming for your children” the speaker had read aloud from a copy of Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out.

The passage he read was a transgender teenager talking about some of their early sexual experiences. He sounds like an American style evangelist, expect he’s Polynesian.

“The book is called Beyond Magenta. On the other side it says ‘central’, ‘Christchurch City Libraries’, your rates – you fund it! It’s in the youth department! They are normalising paedophilia!”

The party’s Facebook page had shared a photo of this page earlier this same day. In the following paragraph, after talking about their experiences with other children the same age, the writer talks about unwanted sexual attention from adults. I doubt anyone reading the full page would come away with the impression the book was supporting paedophilia.

“It took me one minute to find it,” pipes up the MC from the floor.

“Our children need protection!” screams the speaker. “And this type of government is making an environment that is effectively unsafe!”

He’d brought up the government earlier, claiming that changes to the Human Rights Act protecting gender identity would result in people being charged for misgendering someone: “just as it’s happening in Canada!”

I remembered this story, it made it’s way around conservative news sites last year, and opposing the Canadian bill that added human rights protections for transgender people helped turn psychologist Jordan Peterson into something of a minor celebrity.

No one has been arrested or changed for misgendering someone in Canada though. Could it happen? “Absolutely not a chance,” according to University of Toronto law professor Brenda Cossman. “There is no criminalization of the misuse of pronouns,” she told the Associated Press.

My stomach churned at the speakers remarks. I’ve heard from older people about the “gay panic” in the nineteen eighties, when politicians and religious leaders claimed homosexuals were a danger to children.

The panic has been rehashed for a twenty first century audience. And this audience, which skewed mostly male but had a bigger range of ages than most political meetings, seemed to be receptive to the speaker’s fear-mongering.

I started following the New Conservative Party because they appear to have close links to the far right. They played a major role in the campaign against the UN Migration Compact in this country. That campaign was started by the far-right Austrian group Generation Identity.

Following the events of March 15 in Christchurch, where a terrorist killed 51 people in two mosques, it came to light that the shooter had previously donated to Generation Identity. He had also written “here’s your migration compact” on one of his weapons.

The two speakers fudged their answers to questions about this link: “The whole white extremist if you’re conservative, it’s just one way that the media want to label us so they can degenerate and devalue us, and we’re just not going to play their game,” says the leader, a middle aged Pākehā man, before moving on to a less challenging question: “What is the best way we can support and grow this party?”

New Conservative appear to be distancing themselves from the campaign they played such a huge role in last year, but have not said being involved was a mistake.

The party still appears to be courting an alt-right audience. On April Second, the party’s face book page shared a video promoting Douglas Murray’s book The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam. The book claims European civilisation is under threat from Muslim immigration, and is a far right favourite. New Conservative described it as “a powerful understanding as to why our culture is suffering,” and noted: “We absolutely agree.”

Elliot Ikilei, the Polynesian man with the booming voice, seems to have a lot of friends on New Zealand’s far right. Speaking at a “Free Speech” rally in Auckland on August 10th, he noted that many in attendance were there to honour the memory of Jesse Anderson, “a good man who suffered trauma in his life”.

Anderson was another organiser of the campaign against the Migration Compact. His message for immigrants at one of the rallies made headlines: “Integrate, or get out!”. Anderson, who went by the handle “@extremerightboi” on Twitter, took his own life in the midst of a custody battle.

While his death is a tragedy whatever your political views (he was just twenty-four years old, and now will never have the opportunity to renounce his involvement in the alt-right scene that many young depressed white men gravitate to), it’s surprising that Ikilei brings up their friendship when speaking publicly.

But maybe not when he’s in front of this audience. When asking the crowd who has a firearms license a woman says “Oh, no not me”, presumably after raising her hand. “Kym has no firearms license,” laughs Ikilei. 

Kym is Kym Koloni. She’s not a New Conservative member; she had been a New Zealand First candidate before getting offside with the party, and starting One Nation NZ. That party didn’t have much of a presence outside of Facebook, and now it’s not there either. The page, along with Kym’s account, were removed after repeated violations of Facebook’s terms of service around fake news and graphic violence. 

One Nation NZ had shared the footage from the Christchurch shooter’s livestream, alleging that the victims were “crisis actors”.

The other speakers were Paul Davie, best known as the real estate against who was terminated for what the New Zealand Herald described as “racially charged” social media posts that disparaged Africans, Muslims, multiculturalism and Māori culture. Davie had been a candidate for the Conservative Party, before they re-branded with the “New” prefix, but these days has his own group called One New Zealand Party. Davie prattled on about Halal certification and supposed “no go zones” in the UK where “sharia law” is in force.

Also speaking was Lee Williams, who had travelled from Christchurch especially. Williams runs a YouTube channel called “Cross the Rubicon” where he promotes the idea that Jacinda Ardern is a “cultural Marxist” and “shadowy globalists” plan to “flood all western nations with mass migration from the third world”. Williams activism has attracted the attention of police, likely for it’s rhetorical similarity to the conspiracy theories that inspired by the Christchurch shooter. 

At the Auckland rally Williams spoke mostly about the “lying mainstream media” in particular signalling out Patrick Gower, the Newshub Journalist who did a series of stories on white supremacy in New Zealand. Williams, who was flanked by notorious white supremacist Phil Arps when speaking at a rally in Christchurch last year – a rally New Conservative leader Leighton Baker also spoke at – believes allegations of white supremacy in New Zealand are just slander by the leftist media to demonise conservatives. 

One of his YouTube videos on this theme was shared by the New Conservative Party on Facebook last month. The post described it as “an intelligent and succinct review, with a profound, poignant conclusion” Some of those at that meeting tonight might start to read up on the New Conservatives, maybe, I hope, they’ll come to realise that the threat our world is facing today is not “transgender ideology” but the rise of the far-right, something New Conservative might know a thing or two about.