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My Efforts to Transform
the Economic System

The following is what I’ve done to direct my mind and my life toward transforming the economic system. Really, I’ve devoted my life to this.

I’m a white USer, raised in the Midwest and the South by two raised-owning-class parents. One parent’s owning-class roots go way back to the Mayflower1 (and participation in the genocide of Native Americans). The other’s father was raised working class but then started what became the world’s largest firm in its category.

I learned about RC in college. I believed the idea that “I could do anything.” I wanted to try to play a transformational role. I didn’t want what seemed like the small, narrow life I was raised to have. I wanted to know all the people I wasn’t “supposed to” know (people of color, working-class people, poor people, people from other countries). I wanted to do something that challenged sexism. I wanted to work with my body.

I chose to leave my class and become a union construction worker. If Harvey2 was right that the working class was the only class with a future, why would I be any other class? (I now think that people in any class can play a transformational role, but twenty-five years ago I decided that I should be working class.) I thought unions were the only organized effort to counterbalance greed and everything else creating economic inequality, so I wanted to be in a union and be part of the labor movement. I did not want to be a college graduate “helping” some group of “poor workers.” I wanted to be a worker myself.

I liked the idea of doing physical labor, challenging what women were “supposed to” do, and learning the skills of building—skills that appealed to me in part because they are so necessary in order for humans to live (I also think of farming in this category). I wanted to have integrity and live my beliefs as much as I could. I have a chronic3 that tells me I never do enough, so having a job in which I could see what I accomplished seemed like a great contradiction.4 It was. It also was a great contradiction that almost every day I was faced with something I thought I couldn’t do—because of lack of skill or strength—and almost every day, and often multiple times a day, I pushed past that perceived limit. I did more than I thought I could do, whether it was making a joint fit tight or carrying lumber up stairs all day. I have loved this work.

CHALLENGING CLASSISM

When I started my apprenticeship, everyone would say, “Oh, it must be so hard to be a woman in that work!” as if working-class men were more sexist than middle- or owning-class men. I did work with almost all men. I have done so for twenty-five years, and although parts of it have been hard, I’ve had almost no big, dramatic experiences of sexism, and I love the men I work with.

The bigger challenge for me was my classism, which mostly expressed itself in impatience and irritation. I was constantly annoyed and irritated by the guys I was working with. I felt smarter and better. I would have to work hard at not snapping at them, and just working hard at it usually didn’t work.

I could tell5 that the guys were smart—in a different way than I had experienced in the private schools I’d gone to—and I was excited about being around a bigger world of smart than what I had been raised with. But I still would get short6 with them and, frankly, could treat them very badly when I didn’t catch myself. I hated it. So I counseled about it.

What I found worked was to say, over and over again, “I’m better than no one,” and about every twenty-fifth time say, “And no one is better than me.” I probably did a hundred hours of counseling on that in the first four years I was working in construction. When I did the sessions, it was amazing: I didn’t have to try not to be mean. I just wasn’t. It was part of what convinced me that RC worked. When I didn’t do the sessions, I got mean again. After about four years I had enough room that I didn’t do the sessions as often, though I still need to have them now.

One way I challenged the classism of the people who said, “Oh, it must be so hard as a woman,” was to say, “No, not really. It was much harder in college when the professor would ignore something I said in class but respond positively when a guy said something (sometimes the same thing). That was very confusing. Was my answer dumb, or was the professor only responding to answers from the guys? On the job, it’s not confusing. Some guys are sexist, but it’s out in the open, and if I can prove that I can do my job, it pretty much7 goes away.” Now I ask the person how sexism is in their job and try to give them a session on that, and I say directly that working-class men are not more sexist than other men

LEARNING AND TEACHING LABOR HISTORY

For several years I taught labor history to the apprentices. It was a twelve-week class, three hours a night. I loved learning and teaching the material. It was something I had never learned in school: how working people have stood up for themselves and changed things. The stories are amazing and heartbreaking and inspirational.

One night in each series I taught a class called “A Worker’s PhD in Economics” that allowed me to teach directly about economic inequality. It was my favorite class. I opened with a two-minute history of economic systems, inspired by a talk Harvey used to give. Then, on the theory that we need to learn to talk about what we want economics to look like, and that working-class voices need to be in that discussion, I ended by asking what the students thought the next economic system should look like. It took a bit of encouragement to get them going, but we always had a great discussion.

FIGHTING SEXISM

For my whole career I’ve worked to build support for women in the construction trades, to bring more women in, and to help women move into leadership. In my mind, this is also fighting for economic equality. Women make up8 the vast majority of poor people in my country, and I believe it’s only sexism and internalized sexism that keep them out of the high-pay, good-benefit world of construction. In some other countries, there are tons of9 women in construction. In India, I’m told, about half the construction workers are women—versus about two percent in the United States.

However, in the United States union construction is one of the few jobs with almost no wage gap between women and men. The wage gap overall is still about seventy-seven percent (meaning women with the same background doing the same job get paid only seventy-seven percent of what men get paid), but in union construction, women get paid exactly the same as men, and it’s usually three or four times the minimum wage. Plus they get good benefits, including health insurance and a pension—not to mention10 the extensive training (three to five years) that is provided for free.

My work for women over the last twenty-five years has expressed itself in many ways—from women’s committees, to starting a non-profit organization, to a leadership development class that used a lot of RC, to a job on the international level of my union, to three international conferences for women that also used a lot of RC, to, most recently, a regional “think and action tank”11 that works on policy-level solutions. I currently have a fairly high position in my union, running a local12 that covers a state and has about three hundred and fifty members. I’m not the first woman to have done this job in the United States (thank goodness!), but I am maybe the third or fourth. My whole union covers the United States and Canada and has five hundred thousand members, about two percent of whom are women.

FIGHTING RACISM

My women’s committee, at fifteen years old, is the longest-running one in my union. I get to work on racism there, as more and more women of color get into the union. That’s been terrific. My racism can look a lot like my classism—internal permission to be impatient with people. Back to sessions on “I am better than no one”!

Undocumented workers, mostly from Latin America, are horrendously exploited in construction. Often they face horrible conditions, including not getting paid at all for their work. Construction projects are awarded to the low bidder, so it’s tough for contractors who are following the rules to compete. For about a year I helped lead a group of about sixty undocumented drywall workers. We worked to help them learn their rights as workers in the United States and ensure that the Department of Labor would not go after13 their immigration status when enforcing wage and hour laws. We also helped them organize themselves to fight for fair wages and to share information about the contractors who were the worst exploiters. It was an incredible experience. I learned a lot of things, including more Spanish.

DEVELOPING LEADERS

What I haven’t been able to figure out yet, and I suspect it’s affected by my undischarged classism, is developing new leaders. I have a chronic that says, “No one can do what I can do,” that gets in my way. I’m still trying to move that one.

WORKING IN RC

In RC I’ve taught a few classes on class issues. I was also part of a support group that met for a few years called “Leading a Significant Life.” (We basically discharged on the direction “I decide to lead a significant life, and this means . . . .”) I think the thing I’ve done more than most people is work extensively on my oppressor patterns—my own, and my family’s as colonizers on two continents. I couldn’t have done what I’ve done without that work. My oppressor patterns would have caused bigger problems.

 E—
USA


1 The Mayflower was the ship on which a group of Dutch and English colonists arrived in North America in 1620.
2 Harvey Jackins
3 Chronic pattern
4 Contradiction to distress
5 “Tell” means perceive, notice.
6 “Short” means abrupt, curt.
7 “Pretty much” means mostly.
8 “Make up” means constitute.
9 “Tons of” means very many.
10 “Not to mention” means and in addition.
11 “Think and action tank” means a group of people doing research and taking action.
12 A “local” means a local chapter of the union.
13 “Go after” means try to change.


Last modified: 2020-07-17 20:50:52+00