Thinking about the 1909 Shirtwaist Strike got me thinking about immigrant women workers today. You may have read these NYT articles about the exploitation and abuse of undocumented immigrant women working in nail salons in New York City. What these exposes have to say is appalling, but not unexpected, to my mind–how did we think all those salons were surviving charging twenty-five bucks for a manicure and pedicure? Pixie dust? Of course they’re getting by through the time-honored method of screwing over women with few options.
I have not seen anything written by the women who work in these salons themselves. Well, that’s not too surprising. As the articles note, most of them are in the country illegally–they don’t want to draw attention to themselves, lose their jobs, and have
INS Homeland Security called on them. So I don’t know how the workers themselves would like the rest of us to approach this situation.
I do know that this is a women’s issue, and therefore a feminist issue. The workers are women. The people who go to these salons? Mostly women. And not particularly rich women. So what is a feminist approach to the situation?
I’ve seen many people, sometimes men with an air of superiority to those frivolous women who insist on pretty nails say, well, don’t get manicures or pedicures then, do your own nails. Leaving aside the feasibility of this for any given woman (when I was in my final trimester, after a month of not being able to cut my own toenails, I asked my mother to do it for me because I couldn’t stand it any longer), this is an example what I think of as “purity politics.” It doesn’t actually effect change. It just keeps your own hands clean. If that’s what you want, that’s fine–you are not tainted by being part of the immediate exploitation of immigrant women workers in nail salons. But it’s not sustainable in the long run (try eating food in the US without being part of a chain of exploitation and abuse), which is why purity politics always turns into one-upmanship, and more importantly, it doesn’t actually help the people being exploited. Your personal decision not to get your nails done changes nothing, and even an organized boycott would probably only kill business to the point that these women would lose their jobs. Well, that doesn’t help them. They’d still be an inherently exploitable population due to their undocumented status, and they’d just end up being exploited in another industry.
I return to the Shirtwaist Strike. What about unionization? It’s not as though nail salons are inherently more exploitative environments than, say, coal mines.
And here we see how anti-immigrant, xenophobic policies work hand-in-hand with capitalist exploitation, by creating an underclass of people who have no legal recourse to exploitation. And the established unions have gotten very comfortable working within a legal framework, to the point that if an established union helps these workers organize, they will end up jobless and/or deported again, because established unions require legally registered workers.
So I started thinking about legality. The employers have dived into illegality, of course, by employing undocumented immigrants. Why must the solution be a legal one? What if the workers organized themselves with or without the covert help of the established unions and struck for contracts? How could such a contract be enforced extra-legally? Well…gangs and organized crime seem to do it. Employers who broke a contract could find their windows smashed, for instance. Employers who called Homeland Security on striking employees could find their places of business destroyed (I don’t mean fire, I mean more smashing). Of course, this brings us back to the association between organized labor and organized crime, and I realize there’s a reason for that association. When you are fighting capitalist exploitation backed by the force of the state, as you are in this situation, you need lawyers, guns, and money at the ready. You need to be backed up by force yourself. And who has lawyers, guns, and money to bring to the table? Organized crime does.
Anyway, this is all so much a flight of fancy. I’m not there. I’m not doing the work. I don’t know how the culture and experiences and background of the workers affects what they do or the solutions available to them. I just know that unless, say, amnesty and residency is offered to nail salon workers involved in organizing a union, which is unlikely, those workers are caught in a terrible bind and I don’t see a good way out. At this point, all I can really suggest is that if you are someone who goes to nail salons regularly, tip really really well, tip in cash, tip directly to the person doing your nails.