A Life as a Labor Activist

What to Expect

One woman's odyssey through the Trump presidency. My focus is centered on the many issues affecting women--but what doesn't? There's a new post every week.

A Life as a Labor Activist

I’ve known Diane since 1971 or 72—a long time. As she nears retirement age, she is exploring her world of labor activism. She has just returned from a trip to India that she took with her daughter as part an organization called Building Bridges. Rather than starting this interview in the usual way, I have begun with the text of an email that she sent out halfway through her trip.

“The Tradeswoman Delegation represented both coasts and the Midwest and South of US—including carpenters, painters, sheet metal workers, and skilled laborers.  All the women had completed apprenticeships and are in the union.  They were fun and funny—and we made quite a sight:  big and tall, dreads past the waist, braid extensions, buzz cuts, bright red hair, and of course curly hair.  The construction women workers we met are generally quite petite, in traditional saris, with lots of jewelry and long hair.  We met both local women, who often worked with their family, and migrant workers mostly from the Northeast of India who were desperately seeking work.  Most of the workers live in shanty towns or are homeless and nomadic.  Some looked like gypsies to me.  Because of demonetization, there has been less cash in the economy—and these workers all depend on cash payment.  Many of the workers have taken up domestic work and, in desperation, sex work. What we had in common was the desire for up-skilling, our own source of income, and pride in work.  We met at sites under tents and canopies, inside multistory unfinished concrete buildings, in vacant lots. We laughed, cried, and got frustrated with translation—the workers spoke several languages, not just Hindi.

One woman, who reminded me of my mother, has been organizing mobile childcare for these workers for around 40 years, with extensive networks in several states.  We visited a mobile creche—as they are called—set up temporarily at a building site, upstairs in an unfinished concrete building in Mumbai.  There were 25 – 30 children, including infants that are left for the day while their mothers work.  The place was gaily painted and decorated, they had all the appropriate activities for pre-schoolers, including breakfast and lunch.  The children were adorable, well behaved and very intent on their activities.  I was very moved, especially seeing the infants asleep in their swinging hammocks.  The teachers were top notch.

We also visited unions, slum organizations, and a wonderful center that teaches women various skills: concrete work, electricical wiring, plumbing, cabinet making, organic gardening, tailoring, cosmetology, etc.  Archana Women’s Center has been operating for 39 years in the state of Kerala, and is run by a super smart Catholic Indian woman who has dedicated her life to uplifting women.  They have lots of psychosocial counseling and support groups.  The women I met there were extraordinary.

The educated women dedicated to working with these low wage workers are mostly social workers, some union leaders, and Indian Catholic workers.  They were sophisticated, many studied at Ivy League schools in the US, and remained warm and very friendly.  And they are super-dedicated—I was so impressed.  We had lots of political discussions, particularly about Trump, as well as the state of globalization, climate change, trade, and gender.

You can check out the blog site—all the US women wrote blogs and there are some photos:  tradeswomenbuild.org

Women farmers in Kerala, India

Women farmers in Kerala, India

My name is Diane. When I went through menopause it wasn’t very dramatic—yes, I had some hot flashes, particularly at night, but that was it.

I did feel that after menopause I looked different, that I had gone into being an older woman, and I thought of it as a new phase in my life. It wasn’t only the fact that I didn’t have a period, I actually felt different. Yes, I didn’t have the same libido, but I was much more aware of being contemplative about my life and having lots of experiences and memories to draw on, and finding myself in the role of supporting other people as a woman who’d been through things. My menopause was late—I had my last period at 57—and in this phase my life is not about sex with a man but my relationships with people, and my work and the culmination of my work, and possibly writing or doing something that looks back at my adult life. It was the first time I ever felt close to being wise, and I know that when I talked to younger women I could tell them life won’t always be this hard when you have kids or you break up with someone or get fired from your job or you have big disappointments. I was kind of set up in feeling that way until the election, but now I’m rethinking what I do. Do I stay on my current path because I’ve always been an activist, or do I shift to what is needed? Am I locked into an old way of looking at politics and maybe the world’s changed and I haven’t? Perhaps I should just be of service to people who are going to have better ideas about how to do things, or is there wisdom there I could act on? Right now, at least in this moment, I sort of doubt my wisdom.

Menopause also kind of synced up with the ending of my last relationship with a man, and I remember thinking he was right—I’m not going to look like a young woman after I go through this, and he wanted someone who was youngish and fit; I’m still fit, but I don’t think I’m youngish anymore. I’ve always looked young for my age but it caught up with me—now, I look my age and that’s perfectly fine. I’m very clear that this is my last phase in life—I might have fifteen to twenty years of really being active if all goes well, and then probably then settle into a hibernation mode for the last bit. And I’m a little stumped about what to do with that. I was so sure I was going to write this book and that book and travel here and there and do this and do that; I’m a doer, and now I feel as if the rug has been pulled out from under me, and I don’t know if it’s just the election or maybe, as it gets closer, it feels a little more ominous. I don’t have to retire and I don’t have to earn a living, and I can set up my life to work as much as I want and do other things as much as I want, so being there is both exciting and scary.

I do have dread for the present state of the world. I have a 22-year-old daughter graduating from college who now has to think about herself without having a school program to occupy her time. She was much more into health and wellness, but now I think she feels compelled to do something more political to build a good society, and she doesn’t know yet what that is. My advice to her was to take a couple of years to figure out her place in the scheme of things because nothing’s going to happen right this minute, but it shook her up. And my son, who is 25, said this too. There hasn’t been a major American-involved conflict like Vietnam in his lifetime, and he never felt threatened about having to go to war, and they both felt as if other people were taking care of things and they didn’t necessarily need to engage as activists—they almost had a sense that in some ways their mother did it for them, but now they’re thinking a little differently. My son’s a filmmaker and is beginning to think that he should at least devote part of his work and time to fighting for the things we believe. They haven’t made any pragmatic decisions or concretized their plans, but they’re stunned because they didn’t believe they were going to have to worry about a lot of these things. But I don’t think any generation gets off scot-free.

My daughter is so different than we were in our generation. She didn’t have to figure out a lot on her own, she was well educated in her reproductive health and has always been sensible and independent about it. It’s not an anxiety for her, whereas for us it was a constant threat and the only way we learned was by hearing stories. She went to a school in Portland where the body image is actually completely gender neutral—she understands her body, she accepts it, she doesn’t wear make up, she’s a natural beauty and stays buff and fit, and she doesn’t have anxiety about her looks or her health. We worried all the time about all of that—I’ve had seven pregnancies and two children, and a couple miscarriages and a couple of abortions, and I had a very hard time. I also had a late-term abortion after a genetic test that showed that the fetus was damaged, and it was really difficult because I was six-and-a-half months pregnant when it was confirmed because the anomaly they found in the test was so rare they kept saying it was an error. But there was a lot of missing genetic code in the DNA of the fetus, so I began to do my own research and found someone a Columbia University who was able to explain to me the risk I was taking, and I decided not to take that risk. Because it was so late in the pregnancy they can’t do a D & C, they have to induce labor. One of the problems that happens, which they don’t tell you until you’re way into it, is that the placenta is not ready to be expelled, so they couldn’t extract the placenta and that was grim and I got infections, and they didn’t think my uterus would heal properly to the point where I could have any more children. Then, about three months later I had a really painful period—I thought I was reliving the labor it was so painful—and I expelled the placenta. After that my body healed and three months later I got pregnant with my son, who I had when I was 39 and he’s now 25 and I’m 64; and I had my daughter when I was almost 43. But I was on the edge of science back there—they didn’t know much about genetic material, they didn’t know much about late-term abortions, they didn’t know much about anything.

Right now it’s breaking my heart that women’s ability to have a choice could be in jeopardy, and that wasn’t there two months ago, and those could be choices about reproductive health or partners or sexuality or gender—these are all options now that go beyond the original pro-choice definition. When I see even middle-aged women making the choice about whether or not to have a child where there may be genetic damage—it’s those kinds of choices that are all in jeopardy. I did not have anxiety when I went through that because I had my late-term abortion in a big hospital in Washington, DC, and didn’t feel stigmatized in making that choice—I felt nothing but support from everyone on the staff there. But that experience could have been a nightmare, and in that respect things are going backwards in this country, and also with women being free to be lesbians and transgender. My daughter tells me it isn’t just that you like boys, it’s who you’re in love with. I say, “I know but I happen to be in love with a man right now.” I love the fact that she thinks that way!

I love people, and I love women, I identify and feel connected with women. I’m not a hardcore feminist but I do feel that connection. I love men and I love children and nature and the planet. But I really also respect people who work, who have integrity and do a good job, and whatever they do they do it well, and if they mess up they clean it up. It’s one of the reasons I gravitated to the labor movement. I don’t mean to romanticize the working class because certainly we’re seeing some of its darker side, but people who work hard and aren’t slackers or narcissistic or self-indulgent, people who do their part as citizens of the world. I do that in my job where I’m around people who do all kinds of work, and I identify with those people.

It’s a little complicated to explain what I do. On one hand some people would call me a labor educator, other people would call me an industrial hygienist, which is a person who knows about health hazards at work. I might also be called an activist, but I’m not a member of something. What I like is to develop educational programs that help people do their jobs better and advance, and I’ve done this for over forty years. For the first twenty-five years I did it as a health inspector for OSHA so workers could improve health conditions on the job, which involves all toxic substances whether they be dust or fumes and chemicals, and then it expanded to include ergonomics and workplace bullying or violence and other things. I worked in many cases where women predominated in a particular factory, or where occupational health hazards explicitly damaged the reproductive systems of women, though that wasn’t my primary focus. Then I shifted over to workforce development, which is expanding the skill set of people so they can do a better quality job and also advance. Part of that meant interfacing with the job-training system in America, which is pretty dysfunctional, and also developing workshops to help people think about their career pathways, and where they wanted to serve and go and how they could advance. Up to twenty-five thousand people have gone through this program that I’ve done for the past eighteen years, and over eighty percent of them are women. Much of that focus has been on the nursing industry with low-wage nurse attendants or home healthcare workers who have some barrier to education– English as a second language or they went to a lousy public school so they can’t do math, and because of those things they’re unable to advance to some of the professions that require degrees like social work or being a registered nurse. So I love designing programs to help them learn math in the context of their career goals. And in 2001 we established our own non-profit with a staff of adult educators as well as curriculum developers with a team approach to creatively focus on this issue. It’s still needed and necessary, because even though the unemployment rate is low, people are working poor in greater numbers and this is about raising them up to do jobs that offer a middle-class life or at least a decent living. It’s painstaking and the numbers aren’t big and not everyone has advanced, but it’s hugely problematic.

A friend of mine in the health-and-safety movement is a woman in Boston who has always been interested in women in non-traditional job roles, and for a long time she’s been working with women in the building trades in this country, which still only represents two percent of the sector. She heard that in India women represent fifty percent of the construction-trade workforce, so she started researching this and wrote a Fulbright that got funded and went to India a year ago to meet with union and university people and the workers themselves. Then, the second part of her Fulbright was to go back a year later with a delegation from the United States, and she invited me because she thought I would be useful in facilitating. My daughter is joining us too, as an intern, because she’s a wiz at being organized with spreadsheets and quick research. And so we’ll be a group of sixteen women from diverse ethnicities from all over the United States who have different trades and skills. I’m also going down to South India, where there are a number of cooperatives and social programs that benefit women, particularly in health care. The state of Kerala is the oldest Communist government in the world, now ruled by a left coalition led by the Communist Party of India, and they have a very high Human Development Index, a ninety-six percent literacy rate, excellent public sanitation and health care, and almost no poverty.

There are two things that helped me in menopause. One was my group of female friends, and I’m actually in a book group where I’m the youngest one so I have quite a few role models. And the other was exercise, because you’re stiff and you don’t have the same stamina, but I found when I exercised regularly my symptoms got better. I never took supplements or anything like that, but exercising helped me sleep and stay calmer.

I have a sister who is eight years younger than me. She’s prettier, she’s dyed her hair blonde for decades, she keeps herself quite thin, and I think she was a little appalled that I didn’t worry about being thin and let my hair go gray and actually chose not to be in a relationship with a man. Those are three things she needs—to be blonde, skinny, and in a relationship. But I try not to be righteous about accepting myself as I am. I’m not as thin as I used to be, I’m not as pretty as I used to be, my hair’s a little crazier than it used to be, and all that’s really okay. The self-doubt and questioning I have are much more philosophical at this point. Would I love to have someone to cuddle up with in bed and be the person I could call every day and talk to—yes, but it’s not a goal, and that’s a big change that corresponds with the physical changes of menopause. And we’re very conscious of our mortality—we’ve lost friends in our age group, I have several friends who are peers who have died of cancer and other things, one of my best friends has progressive MS and I’m watching her go—it’s right there in front of us at this stage.

No Comments Yet.

Leave a comment