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Feminist Labor, Healing and Recovery

June 19, 2011
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Hi friends. Howya been? This will be a quick thought-note, to try to get myself back in blogging mode.

Friday I attended a panel on solidarity unionism organized by the Wobblies (International Workers of the World), and it got me thinking about unconventional workplace struggles, unconventional unions, and unconventional workplace demands.

One common demand that many organizers (both worker/self-organizers and paid/professional organizing staff) mentioned during their talks was sick days. The workers’ union at Jimmy John’s in Minneapolis (a sub sandwich chain similar to Subway) plastered the whole town with these clever, zippy posters illustrating their sick days fight.

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When the panel finished, I thought: it sucks to have to go to work sick. It also sucks to have to go to work the day after you’ve been raped, or the day after you’ve been verbally assaulted because of your gender presentation, or the day after you discover you’ve got an unplanned pregnancy, and need some time to figure out how to approach that situation. I’m pretty sure most doctors won’t write you a sick-day-verification note for these conditions? (That is, if you even have a doctor.)

Contrary to capitalist ideologies, and the system that pushes most bosses to try to squeeze every last drop out of their human-being-type workers, people are not physical machines that only ever get physically sick. We also get mentally sick; traumatized. We need to heal, but we have to work, or risk losing our jobs.

So I wondered whether any feminist labor organizers (and/or disability and mental health radicals) have campaigned for trauma recovery days. I’m imagining them as similar to sick days, but where a mental health specialist (preferably a radical one — and that’s where collectives like The Icarus Project might come in) verifies that you have a temporary emotional/psychological/spiritual emergency and need(ed) to take one or multiple days off.

Of course, many workers who have sick leave break the rules and secretly use it to cover mental health difficulties. According to a report in the LA Times, “Mental disorders account for about a third of sick days, roughly equal to those caused by back and neck pain.” Here, researchers are talking specifically about chronic conditions like depression or social anxiety; it doesn’t say whether they included PTSD, but I doubt it — and besides, most sexual assault survivors don’t report or seek diagnosis, so they certainly wouldn’t have made it into the study. And a natural process like grieving isn’t “chronic,” either.

Unsurprisingly, mainstream media frames the mental health day issue as a problem of lost productivity. (From the employer’s perspective.) The solution, then, would involve “treating mental illness” more aggressively — which, as Andrew Scott-Howman points out in The Independent, might result in a beneficial normalization of mental illness as a real, less stigmatized part of life, but would also likely involve pushing pills on more people who may not want or need them. Either way, the goal is to “fix” the employee enough to keep them working at maximum capacity.

From a feminist worker perspective, though, the mental health question isn’t about increasing productivity, but about improving the quality of our lives, while also using it as a class-consciousness-raising window into larger class-struggle forces. On the whole, bosses exploit workers workers and, in the process, deny us the ability to heal.

In Milwaukee, in November 2008, voters passed a law guaranteeing workers paid sick days “for their own illness, family illness, medical appointments, or any absence necessary due to domestic violence, sexual assault, or stalking.” The state has been fighting the implementation of the law ever since, as groups like 9to5 National Association of Working Women try to push it through.

Although no individual should be pressured to disclose if they’ve been a victim of gendered violence, the Milwaukee example shows how naming this problem and the need for trauma recovery as a demand could open up space for more intra-class education about the prevalence of rape, domestic violence, transphobic assault, and homophobic attacks. It’s not ‘just’ a gender issue, either. Trauma recovery days, or mental health leave, could also benefit people dealing with various psychological hardships, including the terrorization of being hunted by ICE, the dehumanization of Islamophobia, or the never-healed, ever-reopening psychic wounds of legacies of slavery, genocide, and colonialism. Once, when I was working at a bookstore, I was suddenly overcome by what I can only call a subtle-white-supremacy overload from my bosses, and basically ran away from work crying hysterically, unable to fully explain, even to myself, what was the cause. You can see, again, why radical mental health collectives would be very useful in framing and naming these historically-conditioned mental sufferings.

In thinking about all this, I’m also inspired by Operation Recovery by Iraq Veterans Against the War: a campaign to stop the redeployment of traumatized troops, which would disqualify 20 to 50 percent of fighting troops. Vets have come forward to demand a “right to heal,” not only as a personal measure for self care, but as a tactic of struggle to screw up the war machine and restore more power to troops as people, not pawns. If they can fight for recovery, can all workers?

What do you think? Have you come across workplace struggles along these lines? Does this angle seem futile?

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Ps: Just read this post at Disparaged CNA, and it helped remind me that mental health recovery isn’t only an off-the-job goal. Workers also engage in everyday struggle to infuse their workplaces with more humane, healthy practices. In health care, DCNA points out, white supremacist, ‘efficient’ divisions of labor minimize room for humane ways of being, and CNAs have to “steal time” to be kind and compassionate to patients.

One Comment leave one →
  1. June 21, 2011 5:24 pm

    Hey, speaking of women and labor…do you watch Roseanne/ have Netflix? Episode 23 of Season 1 touches all this that you are talking about! How work shapes mental health!
    TTY SOON!

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