Rochester Anarchists and Supporting the Women’s Equality Agenda

It’s confused many non-anarchists in the Rochester-area, and it would likely confuse many anarchists not in Rochester Red & Black: A legislative proposal, largely being pushed by New York’s nearly autocratic Governor and likely being used a cynical ploy for higher political office has been endorsed by Rochester Red & Black, the local organization of Anarchist-Communists. I know, it seems almost absurd on its face. So, I’ll explain as one member of Red & Black, why I voted for this endorsement.

For those of you outside of New York State, the Women’s Equality Agenda is a ten-point program that Governor Andrew Cuomo put forward in his State of the State address in January. A number of major organizations in the State, primarily the New York Civil Liberties Union, Planned Parenthood, YWCA, and the National Organization of Women have been supporting and pushing the agenda to become a bill covering all ten points that becomes law in New York State.

For the past 6 months, regional steering committees have been established and hundreds of organizations asked to endorse the legislation. Since then the campaign has been pretty heavily steered by the Governor, and has had a legislative tactical plan (petitions, local lobby visits, statewide lobby visits in the capital, etc.). So why did an anarchist organization stand behind the effort? Well, in a lot of ways it’s a pretty fantastic proposal and one that has really ignited a strong statewide conversation about gender equality.

Beyond Single Issues and Inter-sectional

Just last year, New York State passed a provision allowing for gay marriage. This was a huge achievement. But, it has been argued by many that the LGBT movement has been overwhelmed by this one issue despite many other vitally important issues to the LGBT community – safety from abuse and assault, LGBT youth homelessness, access to health care that addresses their concerns, and recently the right to citizenship for LGBT immigrants. Of course, it’s not shocking that the issue most highlighted was one that was a higher priority for the more economically comfortable, white, LGBT community. And issues in working class and communities of color didn’t gain the same prioritization.

The Women’s Equality Agenda was a real step away from that movement challenge. There are ten points, and they strike on a number of really crucial areas including reproductive health, workplace harrassment, discrimination, and pay, access to quality affordable housing, and more. There is a powerful unity of inter-sectional issues here. Many of these issues largely faced only by working class women and some faced largely by women of color.

Anti-Discrimination in the Workplace

The Women’s Equality Agenda has a number of points that directly relate to the workplace, and has gained the support of local and statewide labor organizations. It ensures that workers can share what they make openly and other measures to achieve pay equity. It closes loopholes to ensure that all workplaces have to follow anti-sexual harassment laws. It requires workplaces to make accommodations for pregnant working women, rather than forcing them into unpaid leave. And, it allows women that sue over harassment or discrimination to include legal fees in their suit.

Some of these measures, like openly sharing your pay, actually have an impact beyond simply pushing against pay inequity and actually strengthen the ability of workers to organize a union in their workplace. In each of these cases, the legal tools being strengthened are on the worker side against management or owners. Now, certainly a more powerful way to really ensure that there is no pay inequity and even win paid maternity leave would be through mass union organization into militant unions. But the reality right now is that the vast majority of working women don’t have a realistic likelihood of being union members any time soon. Do we advocate abandoning them to the discriminatory workplace conditions that they are facing now because they aren’t using our perfect models to militant rank and file workplace activity? I would hope not. Is there ground to argue that putting these laws into effect won’t necessarily stop all of this discrimination and that serious changes in the balance of workplace and industrial power are necessary? Absolutely and as anarchists we need to be there to remind people of that basic truth all the time.

In the meantime, these are some powerful workplace reforms to win and I’d prefer to embed myself in the movement fighting for them so that I have any credibility when pointing out these realities.

Housing Justice

Rochester Red & Black has chosen to focus primarily on a movement for Housing as a Human Right. Anyone looking for an apartment to rent now can tell you how many times you see in a listing for housing “NO Section 8” “NO SSD” “NO Assistance”. To renters that survive partly on some form of housing subsidy, you’re very clearly told, this neighborhood (or this quality of housing) is not for you. Of course, 74% of people using those subsidies in New York State are women, largely women of color. The WEA would prohibit this form of discrimination. This not only benefits women, it benefits many working class men that rely on these subsidies. It helps communities of color to de-concentrate urban poverty. It helps the children and families of the men and women that are receiving these subsidies.

The WEA also prohibits discrimination of victims of domestic violence in housing and evictions. Right now, if there is domestic violence in a home and the police come to the house, the landlord can evict both the abuser AND the abused through zero tolerance provisions. And, that eviction can be found in background checks making it difficult for victims of domestic violence to find decent housing afterwords.

The fact that these provisions aren’t already law is absurd. Now, obviously the commodification of housing and the capitalist landlord-tenant relationship are the roots of this sort of discrimination. And, passage of these laws wouldn’t ensure that these things never happened again. And, a more effective tool for simultaneously fighting this discrimination and changing the underlying power imbalance would be the organization of tenant unions and community organizations capable of fighting back for the people are stuck facing these sort of horrible evictions of refusals to rent. But, if there is an opportunity to put in place a law that even stops half of these abuses, I want to be alongside the people fighting for that law. And of course, we should continue to advocate for militant tenant and neighborhood organization as a more sustainable and powerful solution.

The Bad.

Given that this bill is pushed by a Governor, particularly one planning to run for president, it should be obvious that the bill isn’t going to be perfect. In fact, one of the major problems with the bill is that Cuomo will try to use this as a notch in his belt for his presidential bid. And, myself and plenty of others in New York don’t look forward to a day where Cuomo could be president.

The bill is also purposefully trans-exclusive. When the 10 points were originally coming together there was a call to incorporate the Gender Expresssion Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA) as a part of this bill. GENDA simply adds gender expression to the list of ways that workplaces, housing and other public institutions can’t explicitly discriminate. Cuomo made is pretty clear that GENDA would not be added to his proposal and the trans community was largely sold out in favor of a bill that was more likely to pass.

For fear of rousing the ire of the anti-choice movement, the WEA also does little to actually expand or encourage genuine reproductive justice. Although it does codify currently existing federal rules into state law. This was a silly misunderstanding of the anti-choice movement, who don’t really need a logical reason to support or oppose anything. So, the bill is still in the cross-hairs of the anti-choice movement who claim to support the other 9 points, but are willing to hold them all up to stop the piece on reproductive health.

Real Movements are Rarely Pure

I’m sure there are a number of other problems with the WEA that I didn’t list. Likely ones I haven’t ever heard of (and please do post them, finding strong anti-capitalist and feminist critiques of this has been really difficult!). But, at the end of the day, as anarchists we need to step aside from the notion that we need to be engaged in pure campaigns. We need to be able to engage in the broad movements around us, holding our analysis and critiques close to heart and telling them to our allies in these broader movements.

In my involvement in the movement for WEA, I’ve worked with new organizers and activists that I hadn’t really worked with before. I’ve had great conversations about some of our reservations with the bill. I’ve had great conversations about the important gaps of the bill and the need for future victories and movements. These conversations have happened with people that were certainly more centrist and liberal than me and I’ve seen them move further to the left. And, I’ve identified people that may not publicly seem like radicals who certainly are when you get to know them. There are a lot of these allies for a lot of reasons, and we need to be able to acknowledge their reality and work with them as allies that can’t always be as “out” as we are.

What does US Especifismo look like?

To the anarchist movement out there that will call us reformists and sellouts, all I can say is that we are engaged in the difficult process of discovering what an effective especifismo looks like in the United States. We don’t argue that all of our moves are perfect, but that we’re all experimenting with ways to grow the influence of anarchist thought in this incredibly right wing nation. I think we’ve had some success in Rochester, and much of it has come from a willingness to engage allies and movements that certainly aren’t perfect either. I look forward to hearing more on the organizing experiments of anarchists in other places and movements. And, until a better model appears, I’m excited to be a part of the movement in New York for a Women’s Equality Agenda!