m1 (turm4)
Thursday, 14. April 2005

Can you imagine a care strike? – Interview with Precarias a la deriva

Life in this society being, in the best of cases, a total bore, and no aspect of society being at all relevant to women, it remains to civic-minded, responsible and thrill-seeking females only to overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, install complete automation, and destroy compulsive heterosexuality.

(SCUM manifesto, Valerie Solanas 1967, www.sindominio.net/karakola)

The Eskalera Karakola is a feminist social center in the middle of Madrid that was first occupied back in 1997. It has been a key space for feminist thought and struggle for eight years, intervening in public space, in the streets, and in politics. Eight years of feminist struggle housed in a building (#40 Embajadores) which is a seventeenth century bakery and has survived until now despite its ruinous conditions.

The Eskalera Karakola is the birthplace of Precarias a la deriva, an initiative between research and activism which arose initially as a response to the general strike in Spain in June of 2002. “Faced with a mobilization which did not represent the kind of fragmented, informal, invisible work that we do, our jobs were neither taken into consideration by the unions that called the strike nor affected by the legislation that provoked it.” A group of women decided to spend the day of the strike wandering the city together, transforming the classic picket line into a picket survey, talking to women about their work and their days. Are you striking? Why? Under what conditions do you work? What kind of tools do you have to confront situations that seem unjust to you?

Precarias a la deriva (Precarious women workers adrift) are about ten active women, even less sometimes. “We are not obsessed by being very many but obsessed by stabilizing the networks that we have been creating.” One of the aims of Precarias a la deriva is to fight for “collective alternative living models.” I made the following interview with Cristina Vega und Maggie Schmitt during their stay in Vienna in the framework of republicart.

Can you describe your praxis of the derivas? What happened on these fieldtrips?

MAGGIE SCHMITT: We were seeking a methodology or tool that would combine and transfer all different spaces of daily life. We thought that the city could be the stage for that because it is the stage we all move around and interact in. We used the hypothesis “what used to be the factory is now the metropolis” and wanted to work with the metropolis as the framing reference of what is going on. We also wanted to start from our own personal experiences. With all these criteria in mind, we created the methodology of the derivas, which is kind of semi-borrowed from the situationistes but adapted to our own purposes.

It basically consists of walking around in a group in a very open and spontaneous way, guided by one woman or a few women working in a particular sector. When it was her turn to guide, we asked each person to think about just a handful of key spaces in her daily life. These could include her house, public transportation, her workplace, the daycare center, or the swimming pool she goes to after work. We were going to follow her through the spaces that she understood to be important. A whole diversity of different spaces that people felt marked by came up. As we were guided through the different spaces, we asked questions, we talked to each other, we reflected together, we took photographs, we made notes, and we drew little maps. It was very conversational and spontaneous. A lot of unexpected things come up when you walk around like this. The derivas proved to be incredible rich, so rich that we got a little bit overwhelmed with information and ideas. From there it was very difficult to make analyses, simply because everything is connected and everything leads to something else.

In Europe already 81% of the part-time and flexible workers are women. In the fabrication industry in cheap labor regions, there are even more, while on the top manager level of economy (the 500 leading companies) only 3% are women. This neoliberal restructuring of labor at the end of Fordism is called the feminization of labor. What is feminized precarious work in your terms and what are your experiences with it?

CRISTINA VEGA: In our terms, it means that the first world economy is turning into a service economy. A very important component of this service economy is and has been traditionally feminized work, for instance, front office work. There has been a rise in the sectors that have traditionally been occupied by women; on the other hand, those sectors have fewer and fewer rights and less security.

There has been the phenomenon of part-time work and telework for some years now. In a precarious situation, some women are doing both. It is like a puzzle; all the pieces come together in a very complex way. They are made of desires, expectations, economic needs, and resources. All these things come together in the current situation. To be flexible means in a certain context something that would allow you to do certain things, to study and to raise a child, for instance. The problem is that the condition of this flexibility forces you into a subaltern position.

MAGGIE SCHMITT: We describe the fields of feminized precarious work as the continuum of sex, care, and attention. These aspects are very much feminine and use the classic models of femininity. They produce pictures like the caring mum and the sexy whore. Front office work, sex work, and care work are good examples. These functions and knowledges – the knowledge of how to communicate, the knowledge of how to create relations, the knowledge of how to care and interact - are traditionally feminized roles. These functions are highly demanded in the labor market.

These traditionally feminized functions get transferred from the private sphere into the public sphere in the context of labor, while maintaining this stigma of undervaluing. The functions and knowledges get inserted into the labor market, filled by women who functionally are the ones that know how to do it. There are very few male telephone operators, largely because men are not socialized and educated to have this communicative ability. The companies reaffirm the expectation of that socialization and know that the demand is for a female voice listening, comprehending, communicating and explaining. All this subjective information that women have isn’t regarded as labor qualification, and is therefore undervalued. They become the invisible currency of work.

What is the idea of the Laboratorio de Trabajadoras (Laboratory of Women Workers)?

MAGGIE SCHMITT: One of our main issues is the production of common things. That means conceptual commons or vocabulary and resource commons. Part of the problem of being precarious is that you don’t have steady access to a fax machine, for instance. There are certain resources for production you generally just don’t have. Creating shared resources - the use of which would stabilize a sense of a common- is very interesting to us, both in order to give ourselves the capacity to do things that we can’t do without recourses and because of the fact that the use of certain recourses creates a common sense. We are constantly thinking about what kind of form to use. The ideas of the Offices of the Precariat and the Laboratory of Women Workers are about creating shared resources to give ourselves access.

CRISTINA VEGA: It could be a hybrid space where different women could come, a space that mixes activism, education, information, advice, and care. From there we could organize different things. We think the idea is very promising, but we need to find the right formula.

The idea of the Offices of the Precariat arose in Barcelona. This is a bit like our idea of the Laboratorio de Trabajadoras. I still don’t know what it will be like and how it will work out, but I think the idea is good. We cannot think of any centralized structure because the precariousness we are talking about departs exactly from decentralized and fragmented situations. I think a proliferation of this little nucleus that would work like a network is our idea.

You describe the terrain of feminized precarious work as a continuum of sex, care, and attention. Women as workers are not just woman as workers and never without a body. Sexualized power is incorporated in capital and gender matters for capital. What did you notice about these kinds of things when you made the derivas and looked at working conditions?

MAGGIE SCHMITT: One of our axes of investigation that proved to be very important was the one called corporeality. We were talking about bodies on the level of sexualization but also on the level of exhaustion and health, sustainability, and labor accidents. We discussed the question of presence and appearance of the body. Front office work is clearly highly sexualized and highly normative in terms of what kind of body you have to have. This sexualization is obvious in the case of receptionists or women working in shops. We also did a workshop on sexuality where we discussed possibilities of escaping from the norms in the context of work.

Sexuality and work is something very important. Clearly it is a big issue. There is this weird quality of sexualization even when the body is not present, for instance in the case of telephone workers. The body is so heavily implied, although it’s virtual. The deriva we did with women working on sex phone lines, party lines, and erotic phone lines was totally intriguing in that sense. The work was inventing a body in its total absence, somehow.

The feminist theorist Christa Wichterich states that the more decentralized and informal work becomes, the more liberalized the labor economy gets. This informalization of the working conditions creates a space without laws and without social security.

CRISTINA VEGA: It is a space in which rights need to be invented because they are not formulated as rights. They are formulated as respect, care, affection and that kind of things. The language of rights is the language of the public sphere. It becomes very difficult to talk in the language of rights because the public sphere is becoming more and more individualized in the context of labor. The public sphere is turning into a private sphere again. New rights have to develop.

It is very important to think about how to translate and reinvent the language of rights. We don’t have enough words for that. Feminism has developed some words, for instance the quote “the personal is political.” That was a reinvention of politics that departs from something that is really difficult to name. We need to step forward. The personal and the public are becoming privatized in the sense that they are becoming part of the economy. That is happening everywhere. We have to reinvent the public sphere.

Sex work happens in the public sphere. It is informal, under cover, and not regulated. It is a negotiation between you and me or an agency and the worker. All of this needs to be reinvented in terms of rights, and feminism is a good strategy for that.

MAGGIE SCHMITT: “When life is precarious, we can’t beg for rights; we have to invent them” is one of our slogans.

You did interviews on the streets and asked people the following questions: What is care? What is a strike? Can you imagine a care strike? What is your idea about the care strike?

CRISTINA VEGA: The care strike is an interesting experiment. Because it is an impossibility, it will trigger a lot of solutions, questions, and contradictions. We would like to find a formula and organize a care strike.

MAGGIE SCHMITT: There are all of these different interpretations of what a care strike would mean. Just the fact of saying these words and creating a space for this little cognitive dissonance is certainly very interesting.

What new things can we create when care becomes a level of force? We want to imagine that you can do things in different way. What would it mean to occupy spaces that are either privatized or uninhabitable for collective care? What would it mean to create neighborhood networks for taking care of kids, food needs, and so on? We want to play with all these imaginaries and create a situation that doesn’t mean chaos and disaster but rather other collective initiatives and a shared redistribution of the work. It is certainly not obvious and it’s very difficult. We don’t have the tools to think about how things can be done in a different way, and that’s very challenging.

Interview: Eva Egermann
published in [prologue]


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