“Thumb Tacks” and “Hot Cargo” Revisited

Since I wrote the first essay for this webzine (see “Spatiality and Working Class Solidarity”), I have been preoccupied with how workers can create their own spatiality to hit back against capitalism.

While reading about strikes and picketing in Los Angeles during the 1930s, I found a couple of interesting “spatial” tactics workers used during their picketing. I decided to introduce these tactics to webzine readers who, in turn, might give me insights into better understanding the incidents. Before getting to the stories of the strikes, I will discuss the background of the time period – a situation that is similar to the present.

The Great Depression began in 1929 and workers and the poorest sections of society bore most of the burdens of the economic downturn. Between 1930 and 1932 average weekly wages declined from $25.03 to $ 16.73. By 1933 a third of the nation’s wage earners became unemployed. Many workers and farmers could not pay their rent or meet their mortgage payments and were evicted from their homes and thrown out into the street.

Many workers bore the economic hardships as personal matters and did their best to manage their lives by themselves, but some responded with militant collective actions to the job losses and wage cuts. During the first several years of the depression rank-and-file workers in mass production, mining, and agriculture, took job security problems into their own hands by organizing wild-cat strikes.

Reacting to the workers’ militant rebellions, the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration enacted several laws on work relief and labor disputes and tried to channel workers militancy into an institutionalized arrangement. Section 7(a) of NLRA provided workers with the right to “organize and bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing.” However, the Roosevelt administration did not enforce the law.

Many employers ignored Section 7(a) or pre-empted it by organizing company unions and used legal and extra-legal violence to crush unions. Facing their employers’ strong resistance to union recognition, workers launched strikes and were determined to enforce the Section 7(a) by themselves. During 1933 and 1934 about 2.5 million workers organized over 3,500 strikes and in 1937 the nation witnessed almost 5,000 strikes in which over 1,860,000 workers were involved.

In October 1933 when the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union called for a nationwide general strike for the purpose of a close shop contract, Los Angeles garment workers, especially Mexican women workers, participated. In the city over 200 small clothing shops scattered in downtown employed about 10,000 workers. Picketing was conducted in front of many dress shops, the owner of which had refused to recognize the union. Pickets thus “moved around” the district when non-strikers came to and from the dress shops.

The city was notorious for police brutality and the battle between the police and pickets began. the police “picked up” many female strikers every day.

A week after the strike began the Los Angeles Times reported that there were several “riots” by garment workers. According to the police, the strikers adopted a new tactic that day: they threw hundreds of “tacks” for two blocks on the city streets.

One historian mentions that the strikers threw tacks to prevent police from easily chasing them. Although I have not delved into what the strikers and the union’s motivations were, this tactic definitely grabbed my attention. Even though the strikers might not have verbally expressed it, the workers might have tried to put “space” or a certain territory under their control.

Next story involves untouchable so-called “Hot Cargo,” which was widely practiced by teamsters and longshoremen during the 1930s. For example, in February 1937, Los Angeles teamsters patrolled all sections of the port of San Pedro and escorted every truck coming into the harbor to a station and inspected whether the driver was a member of the union. When the driver refused to join the union, teamsters immediately declared, “This truck is hot!” Then, longshoremen at the harbor refused to “touch” the hot cargo, meaning that they would not load or unload the truck.

Nowadays most garment working jobs have moved to Asia. Containerization and the laws prohibiting hot cargo practices or sympathy strikes have changed the cooperative relationship between teamsters and longshoremen. However, I wonder if we still have in our hands some tools, such as the tacks used by the garment workers, to block the capitalist order, and have the capacities, as shown in the hot cargo practices, to build solidarity between unions?

Korean Protests against Importing U.S. Beef

Thousands of Koreans have been protesting the importation U.S. beef by gathering in vigils almost every night for the last two months. Many Koreans fear since the April trade negotiation between the U.S. and the Lee administration that their government would import beef contaminated with the “mad cow” disease. Whether their fear has a factual foundation is not important anymore because their anger grew and the number of protesters snowballed when the administration dismissed their concerns and brutally repressed a small number of initial protesters.

What makes this ongoing protest different from previous ones in Korean history is that high school students initiated the protest and have been organizing discussions around the issue on internet websites, in their classrooms, and on the streets. They consist of a high portion of “netizens” (a made-up word between “citizens” and “internet”) and they decide strategies and tactics of the ongoing protest based on consensus among them through internet discussions. Moreover, spontaneous street “cultural” events, which anybody can initiate or join, are created after the vigils.

According to a high school student netizen on the discussion bulletin board, http://antimadcow.org which is the official website of a group nationally organized by hundreds of civic, labor, professional, and political groups, his classmates listen and watch the news every day at school to see if there are any changes in government’s attitude and come out to vigils after school is over. Some stay on the streets all night, participating in cultural and political events, such as dancing and street sit-in discussions, and return to school next morning. The percentage of high school students who participate is so high that a classmate who has not been in any vigil would be teased by their peers, so states this netizen in a half-joke-and-half-serious mood.

The riot police’s beating up and arresting of initial protesters brought in their families and many other “adult” groups and the vigils became family festivals. All kinds of groups, such as public health related groups, teachers unions, and religious groups, supported the cause. Recently, Catholic priests came forward to support the protesters and criticized the administration’s oppression.

Nevertheless, the mad cow beef issue has not been linked to a larger picture or other social problems. Basic rationales of protesters are based on public and personal health issues and an argument that the administration should listen to its people. Anti-U.S. sentiment is there, but not as a form of global-solidarity against the U.S. imperialism. High school students express that they do not want to die soon by eating mad cow contaminated beef. But are there no other motivations for these thousands of people (a million people came out for the June 10th vigil) to join this kind of collective activities almost every night? Are there some deeper meanings beneath the “surface” level of their own expressions?

Political progressive, liberal, and leftist groups, which have not initiated or influenced the vigils, try to link the mad cow issue with the problems of privatization of utilities or other programs the administration has pursued, but their efforts have not been effective. Some liberal groups seem to pursue anti-conservative administration struggles merely for their own political purposes, and left-wing groups do not seem to have any future plans to develop the youth’s desire for participating in social changes. The Korea Confederation of Trade Unions decided to call for a general strike between July 2nd and 5th, but the strike seems to be a ritualized one in which workers participate in a several-hour work stoppage and then compensate the loss later by working overtime.

Moreover, many civic groups and individual participants insist that the vigil should be held for only a “pure” mad cow beef issue. When leftist and labor groups joined the struggle, ultra-conservatives, who had denied any problems in the eating of imported U.S. beef and staunchly supported the Lee administration, began to mobilize a counter-ideology that the protest is not “pure” anymore and has transformed into a plot of “subversive” groups and unruly people. They had been organizing counter-protests in places where vigils were supposed to be held, chanting for government repression of the protesters, and denouncing the protesters with vulgar words on internet websites.

David Harvey in his A Brief History of Neoliberalism argues that the more the process of privatization and individualization is intensified –a phenomenon since the 1970s –, the more people tend to yearn for some kind of collectivism and a sense of belonging. This observation includes increasing gang membership, fascist group activities, and authoritarian populism which are negative manifestations of these desires, but nonetheless there also exists a potentiality for diverse efforts of organizing meaningful collectivism and eventually a renewal of socialism.

Do the Korean high school students and people who come out to the streets every evening after their classes and work suggest a desire for a meaningful collectivism beneath the face value of their concerns over eating tainted beef? Could the protest be an expression of their underlying fear of a future in which they might be one of those “irregular” workers who consist of more than 50 percent of the current Korean workforce? Are their gatherings a search for their reminiscent sense of belonging and “oneness?”

If so, there is no reason that their sentiment cannot be linked to the fight against the U.S. led imperial plan of global phenomenon of privatization which deprives the poorest populations of the Third World of their stable jobs, houses, health, and access to utilities. It is possible that the Korean protesters can link their fight with Korean irregular workers who have been struggling to manage their lives under this global economic structure. The vigil is not yet over, and the potentiality of linking these struggles together is still there to be realized.

The Authoritarian Personality

While there are people who pursue powerful positions in society or in a group in order to dominate others, there are also those who identify themselves with dominant groups or the ideology of the group and submit themselves to the opinions of strong authority figures. One of the characteristics of them is to show a “blind faith” toward their “ingroup” to which they belong and hostility toward “outgroups.” Besides, they seldom show sympathy (or often show hostility) toward minorities who occupy weaker positions in social structure, whether in terms of ethnicity or in such criteria as gender, sexuality, occupation, nationality, opinions, and wealth.

Witnessing the Holocaust, some Marxist theorists, such as Erich Fromm and Theodore Adorno, incorporated psychological concepts, such as “projection” and “denial,” into Marxist ideas in the late 1940s in order to explain “popular” rallies against ethnic minorities. They use a concept of “authoritarian personality” which shows those symptoms shown above because those who try to dominate others and those who follow the dominant figures are the different sides of the same coin: Each needs the other to exist.

The scholars argue that identifying with powerful figures is a (unconscious) projection of individuals’ “feelings of powerlessness and anxiety in life” and “envy toward those who have power.” They fear that showing sympathy toward the minorities is evidence of their weaknesses and thus would not do so. They victimize themselves by thinking that the minorities and those people who do not agree with them are culprits who create miseries in their lives. These feelings can be latent but activated during the time of economic hardship and ensuing changes in social status.

People with an authoritarian personality are more prone to adhere to right wing ideologies. Michael A. Milburn and Sheree D. Conrad in their The Politics of Denial examine the “punitive attitude” of the New Right since the 1970s toward issues of abortion, execution, and homosexuality. The scholars also found that leaders of the New Right encouraged their followers to make a decision on the basis of “either/ or” attitude, thus inhibiting them from considering complex aspects related with the social issues. Besides, emotional appeals rather than critical thinking influence on their decision.

One of the difficulties dealing with people with an authoritarian personality is that their viewpoints and ideologies toward the social issues and minorities are the projections of their mind, and thus they will not easily accept or even refuse to acknowledge any explanation about the actual fundamental causes of the problems in their lives. Moreover, because they identify themselves with strong authority figures, they will participate in a social movement only when they see “powerful figures” who compel them in dictatorial way or when the movement pursues “power on their terms.”

Thus arises a dilemma for people who hope to organize a social “democratic movement”: The movement might attract some people by merely presenting strong authoritarian leadership or by pursuing power in the system, but it will sadly never achieve its goal, social democracy, because the participants never learn democratic ways of thinking and practice and thus they will stop supporting the cause as soon as they find other groups which have stronger and more powerful figures.

Moreover, although the analysis of authoritarian personality gives an insight into explaining some aspects of right wing politics and racist group actions against ethnic minorities, unfortunately we often witness the similar tendency among some people in groups to form to achieve social democracy.

For example, we often see labor union officers who treat their members in an authoritarian manner, pursue a similar kind of power that their employers wield over their workers, and ask their members not to think critically but merely to show a blind faith toward their decisions.

It seems that those labor union officers create their images by “mirroring” those of so-called powerful people in larger society. Besides, if union officers’ tasks are limited only to contract bargaining with such employers who wield power in the workplace and larger society (because they own means of production and thus have power to hire and fire workers and power to decide where profits should be invested and how and where the products should be sold), and those employers (not their rank-and-file members) are the people they deal with every day, then it is easier for union officers to fall into a feeling that they are powerful when they have the attitudes of their employers.

Rank-and-file members without an authoritarian personality in a group may also follow decisions of whoever is in a position of authority if their leadership prevents them from gaining enough knowledge or if the information they get is manipulated.

The only hope for establishing social democracy is still in mass democratic movements themselves, which have a potential to create new images of people’s social power and democracy. What will be our images of “real” democracy and how will it be related to people’s real power?

Detroit and my "romantic" dream

I had a “romantic” dream about Detroit when driving to the city for my summer job last year. If anyone has been in Detroit, he or she would know that there are many abandoned buildings. Abandoned, of course, does not mean devoid of “legal” and “private” owners. Nevertheless, what if we socialists, workers, and homeless people were to physically occupy abandoned buildings and use them as our offices, homes, and conference places, and eventually make the city into a “socialist city”?


Detroit: City of Dreams

I soon discarded my “unrealistic” (and thus “romantic”) dream and forgot about it after I was told by a couple of comrades that it would be impossible because we would not have enough resources to renovate the buildings.

But the dream came to my mind again when I was talking with a comrade from Korea, whom I met at the Labor Notes conference this year (2008) and with whom I shared my hotel room. While we were in one of the buses heading toward the American Axle plant in Detroit in order to support the workers’ strike, I happened to tell her about my “abandoned” dream while I was telling her about Detroit in which she had never previously been. Unlike my U.S. comrades, she was more enthusiastic about my dream and asked me why it would be unrealistic.

The Zapatistas or Chiapas Indigenous people in Mexico have been occupying some lands and cultivating them, although the owners of the lands have not approved the indigenous people’s action. My Korean roommate informed me that some collectivization of land has been also experimented with in Brazil during the last several years.

I wondered for a while whether occupying underutilized lands by people who do not have any resources to survive other than depending on those lands are more exercised and legitimized by people in Third World nations because the privatization process has not been as deeply rooted for long period as in advanced capitalist countries?

Mexican indigenous people remember the time when they held and used land collectively under the ejido system which began to collapse in 1991 when the IMF forced the Mexican government to privatize the land – a privatization process which created the Zapatista rebellion.

On one day in the 17th century, some peasants in Britain, agitating for a “leveling” of social and economic inequality, began to “dig” (for cultivating) privatized but un-utilized land. Due to enclosure for profit-oriented land use of sheep grazing for woolen products and privatization of property, the peasants had been deprived of “customary rights” to cultivate and live on the land and to access communal lands. This movement of the “Diggers” or “Levellers” was quelled during the English Civil War (1640s) and has been all but forgotten (see Christopher Hill’s The World Turned Upside Down).

Experiences or memories of the life before (or without) the domination of privatization and commodification of lands, resources, and labor, seem so antiquated in the U.S. that I sometimes wonder whether present U.S. workers would be able to envision what kind of life it would be?

On second thought, however, I judged myself wrong. Struggles for meaningful collective lives continuously (although not regularly) “reoccur” in various ways in history and the memories, experiences, and the new experiments of alternative ways of living, working, thinking and making new human relationships by the participants become new impulses of creating movements for socialism.

For example, as David Montgomery in his Workers’ control in America points out, the U. S. workers in the late 19th century fought for the power to “control their production processes” and tried to set their own work-rules, resisting their bosses’ attempts to increase productivity to maximize profits and destroy workers’ rules. Sympathy strikes between different craft unions in a plant and in a city were prevalent, showing their class solidarity.

This struggle for controlling workplace reflected the sense of autonomy of the craftsmanship of the traditional production process under the guild system, but strikes by which workers demonstrated their aspiration to control their workplaces and life were organized again between 1909 and 1922, and appeared again during 1934-37. Although New Deal legislation institutionalized and limited workers’ ways of fighting within the system, their determination to construct their power to control over their workplaces was shown again in some strikes and struggles in the 1970s. Each time, workers presented new ways of thinking and practicing with a mixture of the old fashions.

Therefore, the important thing is whether workers create in their own generation struggles in which they express their will to take over their workplaces and communities, experience democratic ways of thinking, and learn how to be concerned with one another as real producers of the world.

Now, turning attention back to my dream again, I have to admit that it was indeed romantic. Occupying several buildings will not change the fundamental system of production, unless it is linked to a bigger social movement that ignites a class-war for socialism. Nevertheless, the dream may generate discussions of inherent problems of the profit-oriented private property system in which resource usage is based not on human needs but on generating profits.

Environmental Justice Part 2 (Book Review)

Book Review: Laura Pulido’s Environmentalism and Economic Justice: Two Chicano Struggles in the Southwest.

“Subaltern” groups, according to Pulido, are those which are subordinated socially, politically, culturally, and institutionally as well as economically. For example, Mexican agricultural workers occupy the lowest position within the division of the labor, lack political rights and legal protections, and face language barriers.

Mainstream environmentalism’s primarily concerns are efficient use of natural resources through conservation and ecological issues, such as protection of endangered species and wilderness preservation. Their philosophy is based on a dichotomy between human society and nature and the issue of social justice is not among their main goals.

However, environmental issues for subaltern groups cannot be separated from economic inequality and political justice. Because they do not benefit from a continuation of the status quo, subaltern struggles have to seek to change the distribution of power and resources to benefit the less powerful. Environmental issues are directly connected with their livelihood and health. It is, in Pulido’s words, “their land and their bodies that are at risk.”

Pulido examines two cases of subaltern groups’ environmental struggles. The first case is about the California San Joaquin Valley Mexican farm workers’ legal actions and a boycott movement in the late 1960s against “uncontrolled pesticide uses.”

Mainstream environmentalists in California in the 1960s fought against unregulated pesticide use, but they focused more on regulating the use of pesticide in national parks than the protection of farm workers. The state government had some regulations for pesticide use, but it maintained that workers were solely responsible for their injuries from DDT exposure.

However, the farm workers union (the UFW) linked together ecological concerns to working conditions and to both workers and consumers’ health issues in the campaign and successfully organized the workers into the newly emerging union, mobilized consumer solidarity on the food-safety issue, and got union recognition from more than two dozen of the growers, although the union faced attacks from the growers in the 1970s and became weakened.

The second case is the struggle of residents of a Hispanic community in northern New Mexico (Ganados Del Valle) in the 1990s for accessing resources for their survival. Formed in the 1980s by low-income Hispanic households in Chama Valley in Rio Arriba County, the Ganados members began to graze sheep and produced wool and woolen products by pulling their meager resources together. By the mid-1990s their business grew and their wool products (Tierra Wools) became well known.

They used “ecologically sound grazing programs,” using natural dyes and a solar space heater to dry their products. They grazed churro which was a species of sheep in danger of extinction. Besides, weavers worked at their own paces and designed their own styles of woolen products. Pulido argues that members developed a sense of ownership and power as well as diverse skills.

The problem, however, was that they did not have enough lands to raise more sheep. Land prices became prohibitively high after the tourism business arrived in the region. Because 50 percent of the state land was owned by the federal government for wildlife preservation, the Ganados researched ways to use the Wildlife Management Areas and presented grazing programs which could increase wildlife preservation.

However, they faced enormous opposition from mainstream environmentalists who opposed grazing itself because they believed grazing would destroy preservation. Responding to various pressures by special interest groups, such as ranchers and hunters, the government resource management agencies argued that letting the Ganados graze the land would be “discrimination” against others in favor of Hispanic herders.

Pulido claims that grazing should not have been summarily dismissed because the main problem was not inherent in grazing but in resource management. Because the poor must support themselves and thus should have access to resources, environmentalism must devise new methods to achieve “both ecologically and socially sustainable economic activities,” rather than dichotomize them and then focus only on creating a wilderness which in fact is a result of human management.

Pulido shows how environmentalism is a survival issue for workers and marginalized people, but she also points out the limitation of their struggles: Subaltern people’s positions in the power relationship prevent their ideas from reaching a larger audience and they do not have many choices to change their working conditions in fundamental ways in this system.

If a system is based not on profit-oriented production but on human needs, then it will try to create industries that will benefit human beings and their environment all together. It will also have to guarantee every social member’s job security – a condition in which everyone does not necessarily keep his current job but is guaranteed to have a job. Social members will collectively decide what kinds of industries should be created and transformed and how individual members should be provided with jobs (and continuous education programs for new jobs). Neither human beings nor nature will be exploited in this system and building this kind of system is the only way both can survive.

Environmental Justice Part 1 (Book Review)

Book Review: David Naguib Pellow’s Garbage Wars: The Struggle for Environmental Justice in Chicago.

Pellow’s Garbage Wars examines the history of the environmental struggles over the means and locations of the disposal of solid waste in Chicago and discusses the problems of “environmental racism.”

Waste problems began with the formation of cities. From the period of Classical Antiquity, in cities, such as Rome, Cairo, and Athens, non-elite minorities who were economically and politically marginalized not only had a duty to clean up garbage but also tended to live in quarters where the garbage was eventually dumped.

By the 1880s in Chicago, one of the first capitalist industrial cities in the United States, waste materials were routinely piled up in immigrant and poor neighborhoods.

Challenges of environmental activists and community residents have transformed the technology of waste disposal over the time. For example, when they resisted “landfills” for their disgusting smell and unsightliness, the “waste-burning incinerator” was introduced. When poisonous toxic gases produced by the incinerators harmed those operating them and nearby residents, protests arose against the incinerators and a new technology, the so-called “sanitary landfill,” was introduced: waste materials were covered with dirt and then a community was built over them.

However, most environmental activism focused on a single issue, such as smoke pollution and waste dumps, and lacked a holistic view needed to solve waste disposal problems, such as how to reduce the total volume of waste.

Moreover, almost all incineration facilities were built in the communities of minorities. Poor and many black residential areas were built over sanitary landfills that subsequently leaked toxic gases and waste and harmed the residents. This phenomenon, namely “environmental racism,” created environmental injustice and contributed to social inequality.

Refuting the assumption that people of color, lower class workers, and the poor do not have environmental values, Pellow argues that they resisted environmental inequality and participated in many environmental struggles.

He also points out that while capitalists and environmentalists have little in common in response to environmental issues, workers share the environmental values with environmentalists in the sense that they desire cleaner local ecosystems and working conditions.

In capitalistic production processes, corporations and capitalists invest capital and want natural resources to be used continuously to generate profits. In the process, they produce waste and pollution on the one hand, and unsafe working conditions on the other hand.

Environmentalists, in order to protect the environment and conserve natural resources, try to slow down the “treadmill process,” while workers are engaged in the process as residents and as employees and are exposed the most to environmental hazards.

The problem is that mainstream environmentalism too often neglects workers’ safe working-condition issues and workers are thus left out of the debate over the environment. Seeking decent-paying jobs, workers are engaged in jobs that may pollute the external environment. Moreover, unskilled workers have to accept any available jobs regardless of environmental conditions. Meanwhile, capitalists pit economic growth against environmental protection and make common cause with workers who support economic growth for their survival.

How, then, can environmentalism and working-class struggles be linked together?

Many have paid attention to emergence of new kinds of environmentalism of socially marginalized groups that fight for safer working conditions and better resource management for both their survival and ecosystem – a theme that will be subsequently discussed in the next article entitled “Environmental Justice Part 2.”

Capitalism and 19th Century Feminism

Patriarchy has existed for thousands of years, but the process of separation between public and private spheres in capitalism imposed new kinds of gender roles between husbands and wives in Western Europe by the middle of the 19th century: While a husband became the sole breadwinner in the public sphere, his wife took the task of the reproduction process in the private sphere. These separate roles became more rigidly reinforced by the ideology of the “cult of domesticity,” which was advocated by eighteenth-century Enlightenment thinkers like Rousseau and subsequently by nineteenth-century literary writers like Sarah Ellis.

According to the principles of the cult of domesticity, women and men are different but their differences do not conflict but rather complement each other: Women are weak and emotional and thus do not fit into the harsh competitive public sphere, while men are strong and rational and thus can deal with public affairs. But women are spiritually and morally strong and thus they are better at taking care of their family affairs than men.

Although this ideology brought about ideas of companionship between husband and wife and suggested new positive ways of rearing children, it not only justified the separate roles between genders and the restriction of women’s sphere into the private sphere, but also imposed ruthless moral discipline on women and their activities at home. Women became the primary defenders of morality and respectability — characteristics that represented the values of the rising new bourgeois middle-class.

One of the reactions to this ideology among nineteenth-century feminists was to claim women’s power over men by even glorifying more the differences between the genders, emphasizing the superiority of women’s reproductive function and their abilities to control all household affairs. They expanded their ideas of women’s moral superiority into the public sphere in the form of temperance movements and charity works, but their activities and claims resulted in increasing their dependency on males by not questioning the fundamental problems of the separation of the spheres and accepting the male domination in the economic and political spheres – all which reinforced the existing gender hierarchy.

In contrast, another group of feminists, including J. S. Mill and his wife Helen Taylor, accepted the separation of the two spheres but attacked the restriction of women in the private sphere and demanded “universal rights” for women to access the public sphere, such as equal wages and equal career opportunities. However, this type of feminism was also limited because, by accepting the separation of the spheres, these feminists did not pay attention to gender equality at home, such as equal participation in child rearing and housework, and other dimensions, such as the issues of birth control and eliminating the double standard of sexuality between the genders. Without equality in these dimensions, women would either not have time to enjoy the benefit of legal rights and prospects for careers or their labor would be doubly exploited at the workplace and at home.

Despite the strong impulse of the 1960s feminist movement, namely the “Second Wave” of feminism that raised whole host of issues in gender relationship, feminism at present has been weakened. By dividing women and by mobilizing the New-Right counter movements, capitalism, on the one hand, has attacked radical feminism that demands the system pay the costs for reproduction of labor-power as well as provide equal opportunities in the public sphere.

On the other hand, capitalism manipulates feminism for the benefit of the system. Capitalism encourages more women to participate in the public sphere, providing low-income or part-time jobs. Historian Donald Sassoon in his One Hundred Years of Socialism points out that the number of females in the workforce increased during the 1980s and 1990s when the labor market became more flexible, but the increasing employment of women did not bring about equality between men and women and created a “dualist class” within the working class. Women in this system occupied part-time, low-paying jobs and had little influence on changing their working conditions, and thus the division within the working class between full- time and part-time workers became a threat both to the labor movement and feminist movement.

Not only does capitalism exploit lower-income and part-time female workers, but also it compels middle class professional women to be “super-moms” trying to succeed in both job and family. Moreover, the advertising industry coins feminism by dictating what women should buy in order to be women. Commercialism creates new kinds of desires and mandates what kinds of gifts women should receive for their needs as women to be satisfied.

Spatiality and Working Class Solidarity

Many geographers since the 1960s have studied impacts of “spatiality” in working class solidarity. Simply put, every society in a certain historical period has its own particular ways of creating, arranging, and rearranging social and physical spaces, and the processes and the outcomes of spatial arrangements affect workers’ ways of looking at the world, social relations, and their own lives.


Montage of Manchester, England ca. 1850s and modern day Shanghai.

For example, the industrial boom in 19th century Europe was accompanied and accomplished by the development of new transportation and communication systems, such as railroads and telegraph. Railways made it possible for raw materials to be concentrated into huge factories and for manufactured products to be carried out to retailers and customers far away from the factory. In other words, the industrial capitalist society of the 19th century created new spaces like railways and factories.

The newly created spaces changed workers’ living and working patterns. Up until the mid-nineteenth century, manufacturing was conducted in small workshops that were adjacent to the workers’ households. The factory system separated the working place from home and imposed new time and work disciplines onto the workers who now became commuters back and forth between factory and home every day. Living areas between the working-class and the employing class also became segregated.

In the 1840s while he was in Manchester, Friedrich Engels saw positive effects of the segregation of living spaces by class in the formation of working-class consciousness. He found that workers developed their own autonomous activities and organizations, such as reading groups, political clubs, and friendly societies, in their communities where their employers were not around. Historian Wally Seccombe pointed out a negative side of the separation of the working place from home and a new rigid time-discipline on gender roles: it made harder for workers’ wives to participate in the work process and thus contributed to the formation of male-breadwinner norm.

Today, small size sweatshops reappear in the production process, and both factory and small shop production lines are simultaneously exploited at capitalists’ convenience. A new “flexible” time order takes advantage over a large pool of cheap female work force on the one hand, a new rigid “just-in-time” rule in supply squeezes workers during their shift on the other.

Present spatial arrangements as well as the flexible systems in production and labor market complicate labor unionism and working class solidarity. Commercial and entertainment spaces, such as shopping malls, theaters, Disney Land, and baseball stadiums, which are built separately from the working place and home, make workers easily forget the drudgery and inequality in their working places by creating many kinds of sensitivities other than class consciousness. We tend to fight for “consumer rights” more easily than for our “rights as workers.”

As geographer David Harvey has suggested, the working class also needs to create its own spatiality to fight back against the capitalist way of spatiality in order to change and win over the exploitation and alienation that capitalism has created. But how should we begin?