By Neil Armstrong
|Angela Davis speaking at the Human Rights Forum of the Canadian Labour Congress 28th Constitutional Convention at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre on May 7, 2017. Photo contributed|
Renowned American activist, academic and author, Angela Davis, says there can be no effective struggles for economic justice, racial justice, gender justice without placing those issues confronting First Nations people at the core of all of our justice.
She was the keynote speaker at the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) 28th Constitutional Convention human rights forum under the theme “The Disruption is Power” at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre in downtown Toronto on May 7. It opened with a greeting from Indigenous elder, Wanda Whitebird.
The theme for the convention is: “Together For A #FairFuture.” The CLC is the national voice of the labour movement, representing 3.3 million Canadian workers.
Citing her own predicament when she was facing the death penalty with Richard Nixon as US president, Ronald Reagan as governor of California and J. Edgar Hoover as head of the FBI, Davis said it was an international movement calling for her to be released that made a difference.
“Movements matter, movements can make a difference,” she said.
“I know you’re considering how to revitalize the labour movement, and, of course, this is the great challenge of our time. As someone associated with communism, I lost my first job because I was a communist. I’d been invited to teach Marxism in the philosophy department and got fired because I was a communist. So, as someone who for the vast majority of my life has been associated with communism and labour, and as someone who recognizes that nothing happens in our world without the contributions of working people, I realize that there is no progressive future, certainly no radical future without the working class. Workers render everything possible, literally everything.”
Davis said at the same time one has to acknowledge that, historically, “the working class has often declared its unity even as it has engaged in practices of exclusion vis-à-vis black workers and workers of colour, vis-à-vis women workers, especially women of colour.”
She said this is a very historical era despite what we see in the United States and despite the misogynist actions of Donald Trump.
“This is a historical era when women are on the rise. Women are on the rise, and men need to applaud the fact that women are on the rise. Look at our movements, women are in leadership – black women, women of colour, queer women. There’s a reason why women are on the rise. When people have been marginalized for so long it is inevitable that there will come a time when they demand recognition. And, incidentally, I have to say that I’m using the category ‘women’ inclusively so this inclusivity refers to race, nationality, sexuality and gender identification.
“So then when I say women are on the rise, I mean Black women, Indigenous women, Latinex women, Muslim women, Palestinian women, and yes, I also mean Trans women. This was the message of the Women’s March on Washington that took place the day after Donald Trump was inaugurated. Sometimes, we hold these great demonstrations and then we forget about them. And I like the way John Berger, who is a cultural theorist activist who died not long ago... and he talks about demonstrations as rehearsals for revolution. Because it is in those moments when we all come together when we experience this intense collective consciousness when we become aware of the possibilities of the future. And even though the demonstration may only last a day or several hours we have to retain a memory of that moment.”
Davis said she was moved by the Women’s March in Washington in a way she did not expect.
She said, today, the labour movement is transforming.
“The sectors of the labour force that are growing are those that involve work that has traditionally been done by women – healthcare, service work, more generally. You know better than I do, and this is work that has traditionally been called reproductive work and it’s seen not to matter because the capitalist doesn’t care about how it is that the worker gets reproduced in order to produce exchange value for him. So I want to suggest that we rethink this whole notion that there is a hierarchy of labour, that those who do the reproductive work – the cleaning, the cooking – don’t really matter because that is work without which no other work is possible.”
She said because it is low-wage labour it is related to other forms of low-wage labour.
Davis said the “Fight For 15” is one the most important labour struggles today, and it’s women who are in the forefront of the struggle for a living wage.
On a global scale, some 53 million people work as domestics, the majority of them are women, she said.
Though still a largely unacknowledged fact, Davis said black women domestic workers played perhaps the most central role in rendering the Montgomery bus boycott a success.
She noted that Rosa Parks’ courageous action served as a catalyst for these women who forged a powerful community of struggle.
“Oftentimes when we applaud the accomplishments of the Black Freedom Movement in the US we only think about individual figures like Dr. Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, but it was these women, these domestic workers, these black women who worked in white homes cooking and cleaning and washing – they were the ones who refused to ride the bus. They are the ones who are responsible for that victory.”
Davis noted that by the middle of the 20th century more than half of all black women workers were domestic workers.
“And as a matter of fact, almost every black person of my generation has family linked to domestic work as one of the many ways in which slavery tried to reinvent itself. I can speak about the fact that my mother would not have been able to attend high school or college had not she worked as a domestic. And there are many such stories and if one looks at the extent to which domestic workers’ efforts to organize and fight back were thoroughly intertwined with the Black Liberation Movement, this helps us to understand not only the ways in which women workers organizing efforts can create better conditions for themselves and their sisters, but rather also how the movement of those who are at the very bottom of the economic hierarchy can leverage larger and radical changes in our world.”
She emphasized that this was not the feminism of Hillary Clinton.
“Hers was a glass ceiling feminism, and as I’ve said on many occasions she was only interested in kind of trading the ceiling which means that she was already way up at the top. Recently, I’ve been sharing my friend, Michael Bennett’s comment -- a player with in the NFL who plays for the Seattle [Sea]hawks. On International Women’s Day, he issued a statement in which he says he wasn’t really that interested in those women who were trying to puncture the glass ceiling because there’s so many women under whom the floor was threatening to collapse.”
Davis said further: “If we want to include this work in the labour movement, we would have to rewrite the history of the labour movement.”
She said the labour movement must be concerned about incorporating jobs that are seen to be outside of it into the movement.
The celebrated activist also spoke about the work to which she has focused most of her life – the prison industrial complex – the number of women who are incarcerated, the impact of global capitalism, and “the restructuring of economies in countries of the global south that make it impossible for people to lead decent lives.”
“I also think that we have to take into consideration that as these corporations migrated the structure of the labour movement changed.”
She said manufacturing now is primarily in the hands of young women and girls.
“When we think about the manufacturing of the clothes that we wear were more likely than not made by young girls, young women in places like Vietnam, on the border in Mexico and the maquiladoras. And if we’re going to make the labour movement really relevant again we have to acknowledge these structural shifts.”
Davis thinks the feminist notion of intersectionality is really helpful, and feminism is a tool that can be used by anyone.
“Oftentimes, it’s assumed when you say feminism that you’re only talking about and to women. This is the problem with Hillary Clinton. She has this narrow notion of feminism and it’s an obsolete feminism; it’s a middle class feminism, it’s a white, bourgeoisie feminism, which is what we used to call it. But the feminism that I’m referring to is an anti-racist feminism; it's a feminism that’s grounded in Marxism, and that acknowledges the centrality of the working class. And this is a feminism that can be helpful to men and women alike.”
Davis said the great challenge of this period is to build a movement that has a “richer, more complex consciousness, collective consciousness, collective working class consciousness.”
“We need to acknowledge, for example, that the labour movement has to take up such issues as sexual violence, and as a matter of fact it’s time that men took the lead in this struggle. Why is it that if a particular group of people are the targets of some form of subjugation that somehow or another they’re the ones who are supposed to figure out how to extricate ourselves from it? So that racism is seen to be the property of people of colour, and it’s white people who really ought to be on the frontlines challenging racism. And it’s men who have to take up the banner against misogyny and prove that Donald Trump and his effort to turn the clock back does not represent our future.”
She said the great challenges of the 21st century are “to recognize the extent to which the racism emanating from slavery and colonialism continue to influence contemporary socioeconomic developments, especially with respect to women, and therefore to simultaneously forge strategies that will allow us to finally begin the long-delayed process of purging our societies of the still active vestiges of colonialism and slavery.”
Dancing to the music of DJ Lissa Monet and introduced by MC, Shelina Merani, Marie Clarke Walker, executive vice president of the CLC who is running for the position of secretary-treasurer at the convention gave an update of the work of the labour movement.
|Marie Clarke Walker, Executive Vice President of the Canadian Labour Congress who is running for the position of Secretary-Treasurer. Photo contributed|
“Brother and sisters, in the last three years we’ve seen communities rise against injustice, rise against racism, rise in terms of advancing human rights for all people. We’ve done amazing work on mental health, Trans rights, anti-Black racism, working while Black, and those are things we couldn’t talk about in the labour movement before but we’re having those discussions now. And some of them are difficult but they’re important to have. We also were talking about missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” she said.
“Our work is far from over and coming together like this, union delegates and community members, is exactly how we want to continue this work. And we make a promise and a vow to continue doing that for years and for decades in the future.”
She encouraged everyone in attendance to participate in an action – to take out their cellphones and text “TRC” to 343 800 1413. “We’re going to tell the government it’s time to implement all of the recommendations and they need to take those steps to make sure that gets done.”
“These are the kinds of things that we’ve doing over the last three years. We’re thinking outside the box,” said Clarke Walker.
The executive vice president highlighted the CLC’s “first human rights conference of its kind,” RISE UP, which got people engaged with emerging human rights issues.
“We chose creativity, we chose to take a stand for change.”
Clarke Walker noted that along with the CLC’s president, Hassan Yussuff, they made the decision to open the doors of the human rights forum and invite the community to attend.
Among those in attendance were: Black Lives Matter Toronto, Black Lives Matter Alberta, Black Lives Matter Vancouver, Idle No More, Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, Asian Canadian Labour Alliance, Latin American Trade Union Confederation, Workers Action Centre, Color of Poverty-Colour of Change, Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants (OCASI), and organizations from right across Canada.
|Hassan Yussuff, President of the Canadian Labour Congress, and Angela Davis dancing on stage before her keynote speech. Photo contributed|
|Dancing to DJ Lissa Monet's tunes before the keynote presentation by Angela Davis.|
Yussuff said the human rights forum has been a tradition in the movement at a CLC convention for quite some time.
“It has a long history because human rights activists fought for this forum, a place where we can come and feel safe but, more importantly, where we can actually have the difficult conversation about what we need to do to strengthen and build this great movement of ours.”
“Why is this forum important for the CLC? It’s about what our values have always been and, more importantly, why we fight, of course, for equality, social justice, and human rights,” said Yussuff noting that he started in the labour movement as a human rights activist.
He said he understands the difficulties that “we need continue to face and deal with but I know one thing we can’t do it alone. We can only do it when we stand beside each other and together fight to make this movement and this country a better place for all of us.”
“Tonight’s theme is called “Disruption is Power” to remind us all that in order to change what happened we need to think outside the established rules. There’s an old saying without some tensions there’ll never be any change. As human rights activists we’ve learned a long time ago by God we’ve got to create a lot of tension to make a lot of change.”
Yussuff said the labour movement cannot do this alone, but is a part of the social movement which is the reason the CLC opened the forum to make sure “everyone who wanted to be here are welcome because when we join hands together we can do some amazing things.”