Time for Another Norma Rae: Women on Strike
By DAVID MACARAY
Strikes have been described as everything from organized labor’s version of a declaration of war to a collective attempt at economic exorcism. Viewed by corporations as acts of defiance and aggression directed toward munificent, guiltless benefactors, strikes are nonetheless necessary, even if the arithmetic favors management (which it does, overwhelmingly).
In truth, a strike is often the only thing standing between a union membership and total capitulation. Even when painful, pulling the trigger is not only the honorable thing to do, it can provide long-term strategic benefits if played properly. Strikes can be cathartic. As George Meany (president of the AFL-CIO, 1955-79) liked to say, “You don’t own it until you pay for it.”
In regard to strikes, there’s a phenomenon that’s well known to union aficionados but more or less unheard of and, therefore, unappreciated by outsiders. This phenomenon involves women union members, and can be expressed by this general observation: Women members tend to show more resilience, intelligence and courage during a strike than the men do.
Whether it’s walking the picket line, attending informational meetings, or just sitting quietly at home contemplating the strike’s potential effects, women routinely behave more calmly and bravely than the men. Somehow, women handle the stress better. In the face of a strike, women tend to be more resilient than men, more able to accept bad news and stick to the game plan, less apt to go ape-shit.
I’ve seen dozens of instances of this phenomenon firsthand-instances of men overreacting, barking, panicking, breaking down, spinning out of control-all in response to a protracted strike (in some cases, even in response to the threat of a strike). In my experience I’ve never seen a woman do any of that stuff.
While men do things like punch holes in the walls of the union hall, and circulate hysterical petitions demanding recall of the bargaining board, women show up and perform their duties, whether it’s walking picket, stuffing envelopes, making telephone calls, or passing out blocks of government cheese. Although the term “team player” is overused and misused, women are, indeed, the preeminent team players during a strike.
I realize this sounds like a wild generalization (not to mention “sexist”), but it happens to be true. Ask any union honcho who’s ever been involved in a strike and is willing to speak honestly. They’ll tell you the same thing. Women union members exhibit more steely resolve and grace under fire than their male counterparts. Simple as that.
Three reasons are given to explain or account for this.
First, it’s suggested that because there are, typically, fewer women members than men in union locals, particularly ones affiliated with the manufacturing sector, and more particularly, ones affiliated with what are called “smokestack” industries (steel, paper, automobiles, heavy equipment), women are going to play a less prominent role than men.
Accordingly, women will be judged slightly differently. It’s possible that their low profile will be misinterpreted, that it will be mistaken as evidence of self-discipline or “poise.” Put simply, women members will be given credit where credit isn’t due. That’s one explanation.
Second, it is noted that because men are recognized by society as being the “providers,” a man’s response to a work stoppage is going to be more dramatic, more extreme, than a woman’s. Losing a job, even temporarily, will represent more of a crisis to a man, hence, his severe reaction (or overreaction). That’s the second explanation.
The third explanation is more revealing. It suggests that women are simply better equipped than men to handle adversity of this type. Granted, this is a glib and derivative assertion, a gender-based account of women’s behavior which, besides being blatantly sexist, is purely conjectural, incapable of being verified. So be it. But it also sounds suspiciously close to the truth.
In discussions with women union members, I’ve been told that the reason women bring a more “grown up” (their term) perspective to the table is because of their comparative life experiences. Women union members have already been forced to deal with all sorts of adversity, and, as a consequence, have gained confidence in their ability to survive and persevere.
Many have been single moms, left to raise kids after the fathers abandoned them; they’ve had to work for less money than men (except in union jobs), have had to “prove” themselves capable of doing men’s work, have had to routinely overcome obstacles most of their adult lives. Thus, to a woman, a work stoppage isn’t the shattering, cataclysmic event it is to a man. That’s the theory.
Ask any union honcho who’s been involved with a strike, and they’ll tell you that this gender distinction exists. Moreover, they’ll tell you that the exemplary behavior of women can have a salutary effect on the membership. It’s the “Norma Rae” syndrome (referring to the 1979 Sally Field movie) in action. A gutsy woman can become a de facto union leader on the basis of her actions; she can lead the membership, inspire them, mobilize them.
And a resolute, unbending woman, one willing to stand up to the company, is exactly what it will take to get someone like Wal-Mart to unionize. It will take a woman worker to inspire her male fellow-workers, to shame them into action. What the union movement needs are more women willing to step up and serve as examples.
Nothing against men, mind you; it’s just that men haven’t been the answer to what ails us, at least not lately. The labor movement needs another Norma Rae. It needs a thousand of them.
David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright and writer, was president and chief contract negotiator of the Assn. of Western Pulp and Paper Workers, Local 672, from 1989 to 2000. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.