This renewed energy is coming disproportionately from women. In fact, women — and particularly women of color — remain on the front lines of worker-organizing in a variety of industries, including those our patriarchal society has long coded as “women’s work.” Workers in a slew of traditionally feminized labor sectors — from education and domestic work to food service and sex work — have driven some of the movement’s most important victories. That is critically important both because they now make up the majority of the working class and because their involvement is helping to reshape the priorities of organized labor.
Women always have been on the front lines of labor, but during the 1970s, U.S. working-class demographics started their decisive shift toward the current reality, one in which the stereotypical “white guy in a hard hat” who once signified the working class has been supplanted by women, specifically women of color. The Coalition of Labor Union Women was founded by union women in 1974, and the 1979 film “Norma Rae” resonated for a reason. Women radicalized by the feminist movements of the ’60s and ’70s were bringing that energy into the workplace and started demanding more. During the Reagan era, when the 1981 PATCO strike was defeated and organized labor was brought to its knees, women’s voices were present, but not amplified.
Our moment, in which women are embracing labor to pursue broader goals, provides a striking contrast to the political realities of that time. Building collective power gives women an opportunity to challenge the Trump administration, for instance, which has launched an all-out assault on bodily autonomy, health care, reproductive freedom, abortion rights, civil rights and LGBTQ rights, in addition to its ongoing war on labor.
All of these issues intersect in meaningful, personal ways for the women on the picket lines, especially those who are of color, who are undocumented, who are queer, who are trans, who are living outside the gender binary, who are disabled, who are poor, who are raising children or caring for other family members.
Sexual violence also is an issue that has become a rallying point for many in the movement, especially as #MeToo highlighted how pervasive it is across industries. Domestic workers (80 percent of whom are women) and agricultural workers (women make up 32 percent of the total farmworker population) experience a disproportionate level of sexual harassment and sexual violence on the job. A 2010 survey in the California Central Valley reported that 80 percent of women who do farm work had experienced sexual harassment or assault on the job. Organizers such as Mónica Ramírez at Justice for Migrant Women are working to combat sexual assault in the farm industry.
I fully expect this to continue. In the media, the working class is white men in the Midwest. But in truth, white men are the hardest to organize because no one beliefs in the myths of American capitalism more than white men and no one buys into both racism and sexism more than white men. The actual working class is the most diverse part of the nation and women and people are the color are the future. I’m sure the media will figure this out sometime by 2100. Maybe.