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Women workers and the capitalist crisis

Published Nov 24, 2009 9:38 PM

Excerpts from a talk by Phebe Eckfeldt from Boston at the WWP National Conference, Nov. 14.

Second Plenary Session: Jobs and human needs - not banks, racism and imperialist war. Speaker: Phebe Eckfeldt.

The economic crisis is hitting women hard, particularly because they are already starting out with lower pay, mostly part-time work, few or no benefits and long hours. Women make 77 cents for every dollar a man makes, but African-American women make only 63 percent of what white men make and Latinas make 54 percent of what white men make. Thirty-nine percent of poor people in the U.S. are women. And no wonder, women comprise 68 percent of workers making minimum wage or lower. Add to this the increasing costs of childcare, food, transportation, utilities and health care, and women are struggling to survive, and not only economically. Without a job or income many women are forced to remain in abusive relationships. The stress of living under capitalism means struggling with depression and other mental health issues.

I would like to use Harvard University, where I work, to illustrate how the current capitalist economic crisis is affecting women. To do so we have to go back a few years to the reign of Lawrence Summers, who was president from 2001 to 2006. This is the same Lawrence Summers who insulted Black professors and said that women were not smart enough to understand math and science. The same person, who was head of the World Bank, and is now an economic czar in Obama’s administration.

Summers opened up the doors of Harvard to the likes of Goldman Sachs and Citigroup, who ran like pigs to the trough and began gobbling up Harvard’s $37 billion endowment fund. Funds that were supposed to be used for education were gambled away on the stock market. The Harvard Management Co., which manages the endowment, functioned like a Wall Street trading operation. A high-level Harvard Management Co. manager could make $35 million in a good year. During this exact same period, maintenance workers at Harvard were eating in soup kitchens and picking food out of garbage cans for their families because they were not paid enough to live on. This was all exposed because of the struggle of the Living Wage Campaign, a coalition of workers and students.

But their orgy of speculation came to an end in 2008 when the economic crisis hit and the bubble burst. Goldman Sachs and Citigroup lost $11 billion in endowment funds. This is when the war against the workers stepped up. Even though they still had $26 billion in the endowment fund, Harvard began crying poverty. To protect their profits and save money, they began to take it out of the hides of the workers.

In June, 275 workers in our union, the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 3650), were laid off. Many of them were women and many were older workers, some of whom were months away from retirement. Workers began telling our No Layoffs Campaign (a group that activists within our union formed) that if you were a person who stood up in the workplace, you were first on the list for layoffs. One Black woman worker who came to a No Layoffs Campaign protest rally was two months shy of retirement when she was laid off. She was targeted, she said, because she had fought back when her manager had called her a racist slur.

A climate was set where racist managers had free reign, attempting to divide the workers and misdirect their anger. The No Layoffs Campaign is fighting for justice for Ravi Raj, an immigrant from India who has been the victim of racist abuse by his manager. He was recently framed up and fired by this manager.

About one month after the layoffs, newspaper headlines proclaimed that Goldman Sachs had doled out billions in bonuses to their executives. Layoffs equal profits was the lesson.

On top of layoffs, if a worker left they were not replaced and this meant one person doing the job of two or three workers. Staff assistants used to work for one faculty person, maybe two at most, but now they are at the beck and call of four or more faculty. One or two maintenance workers now have to clean entire buildings by themselves, sometimes without access to elevators or air conditioning. Temps who receive no benefits have had their terms extended over and over in violation of our union contract. Work that used to be done by full-time unionized workers is now being done by students.

The aim of the No Layoffs Campaign is to build a coalition that includes labor, the community, students and the left. We need this kind of coalition nationwide. We need to unleash the force of militant, class-conscious women. We need to bring our sisters into the struggle—into the Women’s Fightback Network, the Bail Out the People Movement and Workers World Party.