Thoughts on Solidarity’s Socialist Feminist Retreat — from Harmony Goldberg

Posted January 31, 2008

From Jan. 11 through Jan. 13 Solidarity held a socialist feminist retreat that brought together a multi-generational group of 60 activists to discuss work, gender and heteronormativity. There were lots of great discussions, both organized and informal.

One workshop focused on caring labor, reproductive labor and sex work. These are two of the questions we asked: how can we overcome challenges to organizing with those whose labor is often not recognized as “real work” and whose work locations are geographically dispersed and regularly changed? Why has capitalism been so unsuccessful in its ostensible attempt to divide public from private?

Harmony Goldberg, whose activist work includes involvement with Domestic Workers United, participated in this workshop as a presenter and summarized her comments below:

What can we learn – as socialists – by looking at paid reproductive labor (i.e. domestic work, child care, elder care, and so on? What are some central characteristics of paid reproductive labor? What opportunities does the recent growth of paid reproductive labor present?

  1. Class, Gender and Race: Like other forms of labor under capitalism, paid reproductive labor is – of course – a class division of labor. Socialist feminists have historically been interested in the question of reproductive labor under capitalism because it also represents a gendered division of labor. But it also centrally important for us to recognize that paid reproductive labor is also an intensely racialized division of labor, in which working class women of color (primarily immigrant women from Latin American, the Caribbean and Asia in the contemporary period) take on reproductive labor in the homes of (predominantly though not strictly) white middle- and upper-class families. While this primarily means the super-exploitation of these women of color (who work for minimal wages in informalized and often intensely exploitative conditions), it also represents an opportunity for socialist feminists to centralize “intersectionality” by prioritizing the struggles of working class immigrant women of color. (Evelyn Nakano Glenn has very insightful writings on this topic).
  2. Shifts in the Organization of Reproductive Labor: Although it’s difficult to prove given the informal nature of the domestic work industry and other reproductive industries, many people believe that domestic work and other related industries are growing in the neoliberal era. This is a very clear indicator of significant structural shifts in the organization of reproductive labor, For example, the entrance of white middle- and upper-class women into the paid workforce in the last thirty years has forced a reorganization of reproductive labor. Although this hasn’t manifested (in general) in a fundamentally more equitable division of labor between men and women in middle class homes and has instead resulted in a transfer of that labor to women across racial and class lines, it does illustrate some significant transitions. This represents a potential opportunity to social feminists; as the organization of reproduction shifts in society, socialists have a chance to intervene in how that reorganization manifests. We need to recognize that opportunity, develop strategies to resist the “class/racial transfer of reproductive labor” as the primary model and promote more equitable models.
  3. Growth of the Broader Service Industry: It would be overly narrow to see home-based industries – like domestic work – as the only site of commodified reproductive work. Restaurant workers, laundry workers, child care center workers and home health care providers are examples of the broader layer of service workers whose labor meets reproductive needs. The service industry is becoming increasingly central to the U.S. economy, meaning in turn that the workers in these industries have an important potential source of power. If these workers were to organize to withdraw their labor (sort of a reproductive labor strike), major parts of the capitalist economy would have difficulty functioning as their employees would have to scramble to meet their own reproductive needs. Domestic Workers United often points out the fact that – if domestic workers were to go on strike – New York City would grind to a halt. It is crucial that socialist feminists (and socialists more broadly) analyze the crucial role that reproductive service industries play in the economy and to broaden our understandings of worker power beyond the factory floor.