Say my prayers but what’s the use? Tomorrow will be just the same…

Harlan County War SilkwoodHere’s some music to get you in the mood for tomorrow’s feminist labour unionism double bill. Northumbrian twee folk the Unthanks performing the Testimony of Patience Kershaw.

The haunting lyrics are based on testimony to Ashley’s mines commission in the 19th century. Patience was a hurrier, pushing carts loaded with coal underground. Hard manual labour of a kind that doesn’t fit with the standard idea of women’s work. The characterisation of class politics as fixated on burly male factory workers has always been a caricature.

At times it has been forgotten and deliberately obscured but the working class has never been (just) white, (just) male or (just) straight. We’ve always been queer, female, black as well. Any workplace politics that doesn’t take this into account is incomplete.

Which is not to say that all the experiences of different parts of the working class are the same. Some workers have it better than others; while sharing the same condition of exploitation, they also are oppressed in ways specific to (e.g.) their gender. Unpicking the details of this set of (relative) privileges and oppressions gets complicated and fraught. The existing theories (intersectionality, privilege theory) aren’t wholly satisfactory. Some don’t like them because they appear to remove the centrality of the class relationship, or reduce it to just another of a set of oppressions; others dislike the overly academic language it’s couched in. But the theories attempt to describe a real, important and historically neglected set of experiences and we need to work our way through them. (Someone I know says that the only thing worse than privilege theory is the arguments presented against it.)

Given all the apparent complexity; I like being reminded that these aren’t new or abstract issues. Listen to the song and hear Patience Kershaw’s description of terrible working conditions made worse by the position she’s in because of her gender (sometimes I’m slower, and terrified these naked men will batter me); there’s even body image issues in there too (a lady sir, oh no not me/I should’ve been a boy instead). Heartbreaking in its matter-of-fact delivery and its acceptance of hopelessness.

But of course, tomorrow doesn’t have to be just the same. Come to ACE to watch these films with us from 3pm.