Selma James interview on welfare, work in the home, abortion & sex work


Selma James recently came over to Ireland to do a speaking tour in order to launch her most recent book: Sex, Race and Class--the Perspective of Winning: A Selection of Writings 1952–2011.  We took the opportunity of interviewing her, the interview is below, and recorded the talks she gave on  'Defending Caring and Welfare in Careless Times' meeting for the School for Social Justice in UCD and 'How Can Women Defeat Austerity?' at CERSA, NUI Maynooth. 

Selma James founded the Wages for Housework campaign and was the first spokesperson for the English Prostitutes Collective. She has been has involved with anti-sexist, anti-racist, anti-imperialist campaigns from a very young age. She was born in Brooklyn, New York and as a young women she worked in factories and was a full time housewife and mother. In 1955 she moved to England, where she married writer and historian CLR James. Since 2000 she has been international co-ordinater of the Global Women's Strike.

TJ: Thank you Selma for taking your time to do this interview for the Workers' Solidarity Movement, an anarchist organisation based here in Ireland.   You spoke on a podcast called Against the Grain, and touched on welfare which you talked about as the floor of the wage hierarchy. I thought that was quite interesting. You only touched on it and you didn't talk about it anymore in the interview. You talked about how austerity cuts deeper into this because of the way welfare is the floor of the wage hierarchy. Especially how it relates to the rest of the wage work will be given less and less value. I was hoping you might be able to comment on that further.

Selma: Well, I think, trade unions have not paid attention to how dependent waged workers are on welfare, but in fact without welfare the whole wage hierarchy moves down. In the sense that people are thrown onto the labour market and that undercuts those who are already there.

Now that's obvious, I didn't invent that or discover that, that's what has always been known by the labour movement, that capital always wants unemployment as an ongoing thing because unemployment makes everybody's wage uncertain. It just undermines everybody's wage because there are more people who are in competition.

Marx speaks a lot about that. Everyone has always spoken a lot about that. How hard it is as a waged worker when others are knocking on the door looking for jobs. That's a situation which we are right now in most countries of the world.

So it is in the interest of waged workers to make sure that unwaged workers and unemployment people have some means of subsistence. So that they are not competing for the jobs that there are and not further undermining the wages that have been won by great struggle.

I think that is important to know.

I think the other thing that is really important to know is that immigrants are used like the unemployed are used to undercut the wage structure. Again the trade unions have not bothered
a) to organise with immigrants so that they get the rate for the job that is established in that country, and
b) they have been very national so what happens in third world countries and how much less wages are there than for those of us in the industrialised countries. The trade unions again have ignored that, and have ignored to the cost of their members, because that what becomes the floor of the wages internationally. That's what globalisation means.

Globalisation means that there is one labour market internationally. There is different areas of that labour market, but fundamentally there is one labour market and the lowest wage is capital's aim. The highest wage is our aim. When they can enforce the lowest wages because there is unemployment, because there is no welfare or because the unemployment insurance is very low or even undermined or cut in time period because unwaged people, like women, like housewives for example are thrown off welfare and must find jobs in order to support themselves. All those are pressures on the wage hierarchy.

What we want to do is to give everyone the same rate for the job internationally. It has to be what we aim for and we haven't seen it. We just haven't seen, pay equity across the board. That is one of the demands of the Global Women's Strike. Not only pay equity women and men but pay equity women and women. You know on an international level.

TJ: I also noticed how you spoke about abortion on the podcast I mentioned earlier and you talked about this earlier in your talk (in Maynooth). Firstly, I noticed how you spoke about “pro-abortion”, especially amongst abortion movements or pro-choice movements, that it's a highly disputed term and that they dislike using that word.  And also how you felt it was given more priority and energy than pay equity and childcare.

Selma: More resources. More money. It definitely was funded in ways that the pay equity movement was not funded and a lot of women were more interested in it than they were in pay equity because they felt their aim was for women to go out to work. More women that had to, the fewer children we have, the more accessible we are or the more industry that is accessible to us that's not my aim.

We can't aim for women to be available to industry. We must aim for women to have the choice or not to have children as they like, choose that's what pro-choice is to me. Having the children you want, not having the children you don't want but in order to do that you have to have the right to abortion and the right to pay equity, those two give you choice. One or the other does not.

TJ: I thought you pointed that out quite nicely during the podcast. That it is a money issue, some people would have the money not to have that abortion but then some people would have the money to have an abortion but not to have the child. But in each situation, it is a money issue. Especially since in Ireland there has been a revitalisation of the pro-choice movement since the summer. Personally I think it's quite interesting when you were talking about linking in austerity with this. That now with austerity kicking in, that the abortion debate has been revitalised at the same time. Personally, I think is a criticism of the abortion rights movement as well, do you feel the abortion movement does not discuss the issue of the inaccessibility of childcare and also pay equity.

Selma: I think they're are crucial questions because the movement is beginning now again. Beginning again. I know you had a movement before and of course it never went away but now it's burst out again. At this movement in this you stand a very again if you say you want choices. And to insist within the pro-abortion movement that we want two equal choices. This is the time.

TJ Do you think it is important, in particular within the abortion movement that while it is a single issue that we point out that we want childcare and pay.

Selma: Absolutely. Yes. Childcare. And I think that we have to make the point that we not only want childcare but we want the children to like their childcare. Now there's a problem with childcare which has turned up and I don't know how much is known in this country but they have found if children are put into childcare too early that it cause some biological damage. Do you know about that?

TJ: No, I don't. I was actually going to go on further and to talk about about childcare. You wrote an article in the Guardian in response to Liz Tuss about more industrialised childcare. And then you commented on another Guardian writer who is actually in pain because she didn't get to spend enough time with her children and she said at the end of the her article. “Is more childcare really want we want need for our children?”

Selma: Well, the point is, is more childcare really the only thing she needs. And that was what she really needs? I get the impression from the article that she didn't want not to have childcare or to have less childcare but she wanted the priority to be brought out. So that we are asking for the childcare that is appropriate to our children at the ages when it is appropriate for our children. But we also want the right not to use childcare. And we are often denied that right. It is the same question of choice, when the market is the aim then what matters to women and children is irrelevant.

TJ: This next question related to the first question that I asked you. It is about Marx and you talked about this in your talk in Maynooth. How he did not require people to work in factories in order to get “consciousness”. I hope you might comment on this as I remember you (again) talking about this in your podcast for kpfa. You refute this idea of “consciousness”, whereby it is gained through waged work. You talked about how it is glorified in order to gain this consciousness.

Selma: Yes, I am astonished and I am really a taken back at how the women's movement began and said women must have jobs outside of the home in order to have consciousness. What jobs are you talking about? They didn't seem to know what it is like to do the work that I have done on the assembly line. Or that this generation of women are doing in call centres and stacking shelves in Sainsbury's and Tesco's. What kind of glamour is that?

The implication then all those years ago, 35, 40 years ago was that women would get consciousness enough to join trade unions. Now there's really lies because the trade unions have no interest in us. It is not like we came together and said “no”. We were very suspicious of trade unions. I remembered, we worked in a warehouse in '71 and the shop steward was a friend of mine. That was actually how I got the job. And he used to call these meetings. They allowed us to have a half hour of working time for the union meeting. So we would finish at 4.30 and have the meetings at 4. So when it was 4.30, all the women got up and left.

They had work to do. They had shopped in their dinner hour. They really didn't have any lunch really to speak of, a sandwich or something. They were going to go home and finish their shopping. They had children to meet at home. They had tea to cook. They had a whole set of work waiting for them. And they didn't think it was worth their while to sit at the union meeting as there was nothing there specifically for them. Nobody was going to do their work if they didn't do it. That's a crucial fact of working class life, the unions haven't taken that into consideration. The unions haven't organised with that in mind. You know the problem is the unions either have a low consciousness or they just don't care what happens to women.

The first thing is unions have to change to accommodate women's double day or they are not serious about women members. The second thing is women have a very high conscious about a whole set of things that the unions are not interested in and that the rest of society was not interested in. They have to worry about the prices, the unions have not been interested in prices. They are interested in wages, they have not said at the same time that we have not take back the wages we win at the supermarket.

Unions are very very narrow, stratified organisations which have not been set up to organise the working class people except on very narrow issues, and that excludes especially women. But a lot of men are also absolutely fed up to the back teeth with the trade unions and how unrepresented they are. How they make deals with the employers over the heads of the workers.

There are very few trade union leaders in England, in the UK, in fact, who are respected by the members. Very few.

The trade unions are part of the job. Especially when there's been a place struggle. You join the job, when you are hired. When you leave the job, you leave the union. But in addition to all of that, but the implication of what feminists or many feminists are saying, especially socialist feminists of that time “without exploitation, there is no liberation”. Fundamentally unless you are exploited , you are not liberated. I don't agree with that, I don't think women's history or any history, working class history bears that out. I think women have struggled against great odds with very little help from men who have any power in the labour movement.

James Connolly was enormously different from the rest, you know. They haven't taken his lead on that. They haven't taken his lead on a lot of other things as well, but he was the one that said: “There is none so fitted to break the chains as those who wear them.” I was telling people today, one of the first posters of the Wages for Housework campaign in 1972-73 was women from the North with dustbin lids to let them know that the police were there and that the army had come and the slogan was “None so fitted to break the chains as to those who wear them”.

We were unusual in that regard, you know, because we knew that what was happening in the North was very important for women, so we had to do what little we could in our ignorance. I don't think we were well informed, but we tried to make a connection and we had good friends amongst housewives. Catholic housewives in Belfast, who told us about the rent strikes and various other things, which nobody in England in the grassroots knew about, because the Left did not pay attention to what women were doing. What else is new?

TJ: We had the Irish Women's Workers' Union. What is your opinion on them? Do you think women's only unions would help in that regard?

Selma: I don't know. You know, you can't make a blanket statement about that. You have to look at the tactic. See what they did. Who they attracted. What they organised. What they won or tried to win. And what their general impact was. I don't know about it. It could be. You could have that sometimes, it might work in particular circumstances. It is not a general rule. We don't know that. I can't see that we would recommend that everywhere. But somewhere, where women are doing that, it might be very useful, it might be very effective. It might be long term, it might be short term. You have to judge in the situation, whether or not it's worthwhile to pursue.

TJ: I also want to get onto the topic of sex work. I think the work that you have done with the English Collective of Prostitutes is very interesting. I was reading in your anthology about your experience when you went to occupy a church with the English Collective Prositutes. I thought it was pretty amazing. Currently in Ireland, we are looking at criminalising the buyer and you actually speak about this in your piece of the problems with criminalising the buyer. You have a paragraph talking about this. I was hoping you might be able to comment on this.

Selma: I will be glad to comment. I wrote that piece, but it was the women, the sex workers who did the work, who worked out the programme and all the rest. I was merely a spokesperson, but I helped out where I could but they did the work. I didn't do the work. I wrote that piece. Now, it was good. I liked it.

But where the criminalisation of the client it is very tough on the women. It looks like an attack on the men, but it's really an attack on the women, who decide to do sex work. We don't love sex work, you know. The first paper that the women wrote was “For prostitutes, Against prostitution”. No worker is their work. No worker loves their work, at least very few. Why they make a distinction with sex work, I don't know. Sex workers don't love their work. They love the wages, compared to the wages women get everywhere else. They can't seem to distinguish, for example with housework which is often boring and housewives, they are not boring. They are just boring work. Can't you distinguish between the work and the worker? The same thing is true of sex workers.

In my view and in the view of the International Prostitutes Collective, which ECP is part of, to attack sex workers at a time of economic crisis, at a time of austerity, is really criminal. Because it means you are getting women taking their money on the one hand, criminalising what they do to survive on the other, that is outrageous. It is the same thing what happened in the UK, at the same time when they passed the welfare reform, they passed laws that were repressive to sex workers.

To criminalise the client, first of all, it ends the right to choose. People should have a right to do what they like with their bodies and secondly, undermines their ability to work. Anyone with half brain will know that. They know that, it's not like they don't know that, it's not that they are ignorant, it's that they are uncaring and are anxious for women to have very little access to better money. I find that deeply objectionable. So does the Prostitutes Collective, we are part of.

TJ: I am involved with the Sex Workers Alliance of Ireland. Is there any suggestions you have to make a good, strong sex work movement?

Selma: You should speak to the Prostitutes Collective. Find out what they are doing and how they are doing it. It would be great. Why don't you invite somebody from the Collective to come. Not the one from the US, but the one from London.

To make a strong movement, firstly make a strong statement against the Turn off the Red Light. You have to stand against that. You know, we are women together. We will not allow our sisters, who are sex workers to be prosecuted in this way. We would like to hear from sex workers' organisations. Bring someone over. She or they will tell us about what they are doing and the political and financial implications of this proposal.

I think another thing, we all have to do is to look at Sweden. You know Sweden has been this female paradise. Half the cabinet is female. Sweden is often called the Israel of Europe. It is the largest arms trader in the whole of Europe, that has something to do with their positions on other things. How come it is women, who have found themselves governing a country, which is the largest arms trader and which then clamps down on prostitution, which prosecutes or likes to try and prosecute Julian Assange for giving away all the state secrets of the most brutal and largest imperial power the world has ever seen.

You know, you can't take the issue of prostitution out of the whole spectrum of the views and policy that a country has. You know, yourself, that the question of sexual choices, generally, including sex work, which is a sexual choice, is connected with the repression of women. It always is. You know, we can't get away from that. But I think we are too much trained not to make connections between one policy and another, you know, we have to follow the dots.

TJ: That is actually the last of my questions. I was wondering if there is anything else you would like to say?

Selma: I would like to come back. I would like to know what the women studies departments in universities think about the anthology. I'm really dying to know. I'd like to know what they think. Not about the slogan: “wages for housework” or an organisation called “wages for housework” but a way of viewing of things, a way of analysing things and a way of judging what is important to do and how to do it. I'd like to know what they think and I hope they will tell me. I'm really dying to know.

The other thing I want to say, which I said today, which is that we should not be so separated England and Ireland and Wales and Scotland, of course those also. We really need to be much more in touch, comparing our situations. Maggie has helped us to be aware of the British and the history in Ireland, but it is only the beginning. She is only one person and she has to earn her living and do political work and also keep up with us in England, keep up with the international campaign in other places. She needs help and this tour has been helpful. We need more communication, we need more cross-pollination. We'd love to be useful what you want to do with sex workers.

TJ: Thank you very much.

Selma: My pleasure.

UCD talk


Selma James speaking on Defending Caring and Welfare in Careless Times at UCD Dublin by Workers Solidarity on Mixcloud



Selam James on How Can Women Defeat Austerity? at CERSA Maynooth by Workers Solidarity on Mixcloud

  • Author: TJ