by Blanca M, Natalia C, Nick K ; Workers Voice members active in Academic Workers for a Democratic Union- a reform caucus in UAW 2865 (Academic Student Workers at UC)
The second half of the Spring semester had been exhausting and traumatic for many of us. From the moment we learned that one of our most prominent activists was accused of rape, we all knew that we were in for an emotional roller-coaster that would stretch our collective morale to a breaking point. Even so, I don’t think any of us knew exactly what lay in store for us and just how difficult things were going to get. But we survived, and we should be proud of having done what no one else on the left or in the labor movement in this country has succeeded in doing in the recent past; we have faced an activist accused of rape in our midst and taken real steps to hold them to account and fight for the safety of our organizing space, all whilst standing in unquestioning solidarity with the survivor. This is a real victory, not just for us, but also for the labor movement as a whole, and, hopefully, it will inspire others to wage similar struggles in their unions and political organizations.
Violence against women is not just a trivial crime: it is the manifestation of a systematic oppression of women in capitalist society
From the start, there were only two basic principles that those of us who first learned about the rape agreed upon as a basis for moving forward. First, we would not question the survivor’s statement and we would support her in any and every way we could and second, we would take seriously the safety concerns of caucus members and allies.
As socialists we think it is important to defend also our political logic behind our position to not question the survivor: this is not simply a question of taking ‘one side’ over another, because these sides are not equal in society. We live in a society where not only there is a systematic oppression of women, but where violence against women is trivialized: a very recent WHO report confirmed the daunting news: “35.6% of women will experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetime, usually from a male partner.”
Our society systematically ignores rape, downplays its prevalence and significance, and demeans survivors, often branding them ‘responsible’ somehow for what has been done to them. The justice system serves only to re-traumatize victims and rarely brings rapists to any kind of justice. The majority of rapes and sexual assaults go unreported, (in the US only 16% of rapes and sexual assaults are reported) and only around 5% of the rapists spend one day in jail. In this context, if a survivor comes forward to say she was raped, it is extremely unlikely that she is ‘making it up’, and, above all, we will not allow our caucus and our union to be a space that replicates the practice of doubting, demeaning and ignoring survivors of rape. We cannot be neutral in this case: we need to take a clear stance of believing the woman, take leadership in setting an investigation, and be ready to explain why we should take the woman’s statement as proof of the rape.
This is especially important in the context of a national and international situation in which the rights of women are under sustained attack. Violence against women in places such as Delhi, Cairo and towns and cities throughout the US, has been headline news, even in the bourgeois press. Similarly, attempts by right-wing bigots (met with complicit silence from self-styled ‘progressives’ in the Democratic Party) in this country to roll back the gains of the women’s movement in areas such as abortion rights and access to reproductive health care, are part of a larger, global offensive against the rights of women. As socialists and radicals, we argue that it is the desire of the capitalist class to privatize reproductive labor, as well as turn workers against one another, that provides the material basis for misogyny and provides an enabling environment for violence against women.
In confronting sexism and violence, our priority is to involve women and preserve their participation in our class organizations
As mentioned above, the other principle we were in agreement on was the need to take seriously the safety concerns of caucus members and allies, especially women. Such safety concerns were expressed frequently by many individuals, some of whom shared traumatic experiences of misogynistic behavior by the accused rapist during the recent past. We were completely unwilling to simply ignore or downplay these concerns, both out of deep and sincere concern for the safety of our comrades in struggle, and also out of a recognition that we would have no hope of expanding our caucus and building our union, let alone preparing for a mass strike, if our organizing spaces were considered places where women were not safe and perpetrators of sexual violence could operate unchecked. Our ability to stay united, and build greater unity with other workers and students, depended upon our ability to respect and address the safety concerns of our comrades, especially women who felt traumatized by the situation. If we allow our institutions of struggle to simply mirror the oppressions that exist in capitalist society at large, then our struggle for a better world is doomed from the start.
Beyond these two points, there was a divergence of opinion about how we should respond, and many of us were being pulled in different directions by differing perspectives and viewpoints. We think it is important to explain why as socialists we support an independent and public investigation of this case within our union. We do not believe the systematic oppression of women can be successfully combated by a feminist vanguard alone, nor by the alliance of all women. As Marxists, we see that all forms of structural oppression, like sexism and racism, are intertwined with class society and exploitation. The oppressive ideologies, institutions, and forms of discrimination do not exist separately from capitalism, they are intertwined with the most fundamental aspects of the capitalist system: the structure of the capitalist economy (that benefits from the double shift, the over-exploitation of women, and lower salaries) and the institution of the State that enforces many forms of discrimination. This is why we think that the total emancipation of women is not possible under capitalism, and the only social force that can defeat capitalism and sexism, is the entire, united working class, and not women alone (which is half of the class). This is why, very concretely, we fight for our class to be educated on this issue and we think our class organizations, like unions, need to be able to take leadership in the struggle against sexism. If women cannot have their union take a clear stance on this, we think it is even less likely we will be able to defeat sexism in society. As hard as it might seem, we need to fight to have a clear process in our unions to confront and respond to cases of sexism and violence on women, to educate all workers, men and women, on this issue. To deal with sexism is not to divide the class; it is to address what is dividing us to build a true emancipatory working class unity, a unity to prevent the 1% from dividing us along gender lines.
The threat of a lawsuit: the role of the State in our class organizations
However, just as these discussions were beginning about how to deal with accusations, we were threatened with a lawsuit should we make any attempt to discuss the rape in writing. This threat was quickly followed by a ‘cease-and-desist’ letter sent to several members of the ad-hoc committee that had formed to address the issue. It was these threats that drove us to adopt less public forms of organizing and outreach, against our wishes. The dominant viewpoint among the ad-hoc group was that we should bring as wide a group of people as possible into the discussion about how to respond to the presence of a rapist in our midst, but the threat of legal action circumvented this possibility. This was not simply a question of a legal threat against us, but was ultimately a threat against the survivor herself, who could easily have ended up having to ‘prove’ her account in open court. As one lawyer we consulted put it, a defamation lawsuit in this context would essentially be a rape trial in which the survivor is the defendant. This was not an outcome any of us were willing to risk without the explicit consent of the survivor.
It is hard to find words strong enough to express how unequivocally we reject the actions of a leading activist who tries to use the bourgeois state apparatus to silence not only our union, but also a woman survivor of violence. It is a difficult betrayal to forgive. For us, this action is a complete breach of our principles of class independence from the State, it is a breach of working class solidarity, and it is a use of the repressive apparatus of the bourgeoisie against workers who want to deal openly and seriously with a case of sexism in their local.
Ultimately, following the survivor’s courageous decision to release a written statement and make her experience public, the ad-hoc group also made public the details of the process it had devised and carried out over the previous weeks. This precipitated the resignation of the union officer accused of rape and his retreat from our organizing spaces, at least for the time being. We are now faced with two major challenges: figuring out how to rebuild some degree of unity within the caucus (or what is left of it) and also deciding how to have a better process to address the question of violence on women within the union and with the broader activist community. In order to overcome these challenges, we need to talk honestly amongst ourselves about what has worked, and what hasn’t, in the process we’ve followed so far. But beyond this, we also need to recognize that recent events have been only a particularly extreme case of a deep-rooted problem: the failure to take the fight against women’s oppression seriously within the labor movement, as neither our union neither any other working class organization has a clear process to confront this plague.
“Process” objections are political questions
Much of the criticism that has been raised against us has been framed in terms of transparency and accountability, that is objections to the “process”. Because we did not hesitate to take the accusations seriously and begin to act on them, we have been accused of working in secret with unarticulated, ‘political’ motivations, deliberately keeping others in the dark. This critique has been framed in terms of the right of the accused rapist to ‘due process’ and a ‘fair hearing’. In reality however, much of this criticism is not really about process transparency at all; it is a political difference about the basis on which we decided to move forward in the first place, and the basic principles we started from. For many of our critics, it is unconscionable that we would take the word of the survivor and the safety concerns of caucus members above the ‘reputation’ and ‘right to due process’ of the perpetrator, and this has been the real criticism underlying complaints about transparency. They think we should treat an accusation of rape like an accusation of stealing or violence “in general”.
Again though, for us, this is not a question of ‘whose side do we take?’ or ‘who do we believe?’, but a question about our approach to fight against sexism. We insist that the nature of the violence has a special significance for our class and needs a different reaction. Supporting survivors of sexual violence and fighting to make our organizing spaces safe for women are some of the key means by which we prevent the simple replication of structural oppression in our own institutions.
Another commonly raised objection was that dealing with this issue publicly was effectively handing management a major public relations victory. By revealing and discussing openly a case of sexual violence, we were allowing UC bosses to attack us for our poor record on fighting sexism, or even paint us as apologists for rape. The reality though is that if management were able to use this case against us, it would only be because we had failed to deal with it in a serious and public manner, and if management were able to divide us on the question of women’s oppression, it would only be because we failed to take the fight against such oppression seriously. The best defense against the use of such tactics by management is therefore to build unity within our caucus and our union against perpetrators of sexual violence and to resist the simple replication of relations of oppression inside our institutions of struggle.
No one who has been active in the ad-hoc anti-sexual violence group thinks that the process we devised and undertook was perfect. We all recognize its imperfections, and given complete freedom to design a process without constraints of any kind, we probably would have not done things in exactly the same way. But the fact is that we did have constraints acting upon us, not least of which were the ever-present threat of legal action and the deep-rooted feelings of unsafety by many caucus and union activists. The gross imperfections of the society in which we live and organize were inevitably reflected, to a certain extent, in the process we were trying to develop, and it is wholly unreasonable to expect things to be otherwise. Nevertheless, there are some legitimate issues that we need to think through for the sake of developing a clearer and more effective process.
First, the process needs to be as public as possible within the union and our organizing spaces, so we can educate activists and build confidence. Again, we agree that the “semi-clandestine” nature of the actual process was problematic, but it was not of our own choosing. It is probably true to say that at times we were too cautious about informing a slightly wider layer of people about what was going on. This resulted, in a few cases, in otherwise supportive people being left on the margins of the process. Second, we should have been clearer on the need to bring the issue to the union and develop a specifically union-centered process for dealing with this case. In particular, our commitment to fighting women’s oppression rings hollow if working-class organizations, like our union, end up having lower standards for dealing with rape cases than bourgeois society. Yet, this second challenge is the most difficult one.
Without a clear stance and mechanisms to fight sexism, the labor movement cannot advance
Our local is typical of the rest of the labor movement in the United States, in that it lacks any special procedures for dealing adequately with cases of sexual violence or misogynistic behavior within its ranks. This is not, of course, because the labor movement is free of such cases. Rather, it is a result of an outright refusal to take the fight against women’s oppression seriously, and to build a united anti-sexist front of all workers, regardless of gender, against women’s oppression. In our own union, for example, whilst (highly bureaucratic) procedures exist for dealing with officials who violate the bylaws, embezzle union funds etc., there is no special procedure for dealing with sexual harassment, rape or other kinds of sexual violence. In concrete terms, this is manifested in the UAW constitution by a requirement to have a corroborating witness testify to the offence, and to have clear “direct evidence” before disciplinary proceedings can begin, requirements which even the bourgeois US legal system, under pressure from the feminist movement, has discarded. We cannot advance our collective rights a single inch if we hold ourselves to lower standards than the bosses impose on society as a whole!
As an absolute minimum, therefore, our union needs a procedure that allows for the suspension of the perpetrator pending investigation, and drops the need for a corroborating witness in cases involving sexual violence. Again, to be sure, to the extent that these practices are followed in bourgeois society, it is due to the struggles of working-class feminists and socialists, but if we do not follow them in our own organizations, we are handing the bosses an easy ideological victory against us. Beyond this though, we need to figure out how to ensure that cases of rape and sexual violence that surface inside our union are dealt with according to a procedure that does not place the burden of proof on the survivor, nor re-traumatize her/him, but takes such cases seriously and deals with them swiftly, effectively and justly.
As things stand now, we have succeeded in confronting a rapist in our organizing space and put the issue of women’s oppression firmly on the agenda for our caucus and union. But we still have a long way to go. It is obvious that the members of the caucus and the union are not clear and united in making the fight against women’s oppression central to our broader struggles with the bosses, or at least they strongly disagree with the basis on which we have been trying to wage that fight. We need to reconstitute the reform project on a new, explicitly anti-sexist basis, and whilst we should strive to build the broadest possible unity, we should also be prepared to break with those who fundamentally disagree with our position on fighting sexism. A revitalized, anti-sexist AWDU would be in a stronger position to advocate for a clear line of no concessions and the need to prepare for a strike in the upcoming contract negotiations.