On Gender, Work and Bill 37

nurse strikeBy Chris Parsons

A version of this article first appeared on his blog A Culture of Defeat  

The gendered dynamics of work and labour rights don’t exist in a vacuum. The context, including the regional context, also matters. And in Nova Scotia this has been a horrible year for sexism and gender-based violence in the public eye: a high profile gang rape led to a teenage taking her life, an inexplicable tradition of “rape chants” at Saint Mary’s University became public, anti-choice ads appeared on public busses, and in general, it felt like there was a war being waged on anyone who wasn’t a cisgendered man. The legislature has also launched an attack on women. The general misogyny of our times is reflected in Bill 37.

For the third time in nine months, the provincial government in Nova Scotia has moved to revoke the right to strike from unionized workers in Nova Scotia.

In July 2013, the NDP government shamelessly did it to paramedics while the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union (NSGEU) silently watched. And in early March of this year, the new Liberal government used coercive legislation to break the NSGEU’s own strike at Northwood Manor’s homecare division.

While currently stalled in the Law Amendments Committee by rank-and-file nurses and NDP wrangling, the Liberals have introduced Bill 37 to crush a work stoppage and force nurses represented by the NSGEU in the Capital Health district off picket lines and back into understaffed nursing units.

The realities on the ground in Nova Scotia are startling: the province is threatening to revoke the most basic labour right –the right to strike – from 33,000 workers, which comprises almost half the province’s unionized workforce. The NSGEU, one of the largest unions in the province, have favoured binding arbitration and rejected militancy in recent years. Yet its rank and file – mostly young, educated women – are largely fed up and willing to push the leadership.

To their credit, the union, like the Chicago Teachers Union before them, has made this strike about more than wages, and instead focused the the role of properly funded public services. This is a strategy necessary for the survival of public sector unionism.

The broader labour movement in the province has been quick to recognize the importance of this battle and is more progressive, more militant and better organized than it has been in years. Halifax’s left has consolidated in recent years and the NS NDP, while recently decimated in a general election, seems willing to provide parliamentary opposition to the Liberals’ plans.

Among all the dynamics that make this bill and the left and labour’s response to it so important is that the actions of this government are not simply an assault on the rights of organized labour. Bill 37 is an assault on the rights of women.

This bill is based, in large, on a gendered understanding of work. A legislature that is overwhelmingly filled by men is sitting in a legislative chamber trying to make it illegal for health care workers, an overwhelmingly women workforce, to withhold their labour.

Bill 37 does not restrict the right to strike of a narrow band of emergency health care professionals – it restricts the right of a wide variety of people who engage in care work. The list of workers who lose the right to withhold their labour doesn’t just include nurses and paramedics. It includes home care, home support and even child care workers. This isn’t about over-regulating the labour of essential emergency workers. Its about destroying the labour rights of anyone engaged in care work and the vast majority of those people are women.

In a 2013 piece for Jacobin Magazine, American labour journalist Sarah Jaffe wrote that “While bosses, administrators, and politicians expect and tout the natural “caring” that women who work in care fields provide, [daycare worker Nancy] Harvey points out that it adds to their exploitation. ‘Kindness is taken for weakness,’ she says.”

Just reading the comments sections on the Chronicle Herald or CBC websites makes it clear that these assumptions about women, work and care underpin the false outrage that justifies withholding the rights of an overwhelmingly female workforce: the women on strike would not go on strike if they really cared about their jobs or their patients.

The women who are walking picket lines all night in an April ice storm demanding that their new contract include nurse-to-patient ratios do not really care about patients. The women who have dedicated their lives to a profession that puts them on 12 hour shifts with the sick, the dying, the elderly and the suffering do not really care about patients. Demanding fair wages, the right to control your own labour, or the ability to ensure that your workplace is safe is incompatible with caring because care work is not real work.

Workplace control, fair compensation, gender equality and respect for the dignity of all labour require us to recognize that work is gendered and that all people, regardless of their gender, ought to have absolute control of their work, including the right to organize together and to collectively withhold their labour.

The same logic that says women aren’t in control of their labour also underpins rape culture and the anti-choice assault on reproductive rights. The bodies of women – labouring bodies, libidinal bodies, reproductive bodies, living bodies – do not belong to women. The right to control those bodies and to decide when they labour, when they carry children to term and when and with whom they have sex are decisions not to be left to women. Instead bosses and men and the state are believed to be better arbiters of what is best for women and what women ought to be permitted to do. And they are the social group that benefits, particularly economically, from exercising these forms of control.

The fight over Bill 37 tells us a lot about the world we live in. It is a world where the state can simultaneously tell us that public services are too expensive to fund in times of austerity but are so important than we need to take away basic rights to protect them. But it is also a world where rank and file union members are starting to force their leadership to abandon concessions and arbitration as a strategy.

It’s a world where some work is more valued than other work and the ways in which we evaluate whose labour is really labour is refracted through the lens of gender. Where you stand on Bill 37 says a lot about whose side you’re on – not just if you support bosses or workers, but also if you see care work as work worth defending and women as workers worth respecting.


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