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Taking on the Big Boys --
and how to get started

An interview with Ellen Bravo

Interview by Judith Stadtman Tucker

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Public debates about bringing the United States up to speed with the rest of the industrialized world in providing support for working families tend to skirt the issue of strategic resistance from the conservative business sector to legislation that regulates the so-called "flexibility" of the U.S. labor market. (In this case, "flexibility" doesn't mean giving Americans more control over their work hours -- it means assuring that employers have more rights than workers do.) The same special interest groups that attempted -- and are still trying -- to bring down the Family and Medical Leave Act have mounted formidable opposition to campaigns for paid leave in California, Washington State, New Jersey, and New York, and won important compromises. These are the Big Boys -- and make no mistake, they'll be out in force to defeat any efforts to increase worker's access to job flexibility, guarantee paid time off for health and family emergencies, or prohibit workplace discrimination against people with caregiving responsibilities. Forget about all that "family values" talk. Where the rubber meets the road, these folks don't give a damn about you or your family.

Which is why it's so refreshing to read Ellen Bravo's Taking On The Big Boys: Why Feminism is Good for Families, Business, and the Nation (Feminist Press, 2007). Bravo, a former director of 9to5, has a long track record of fighting for women's workplace rights and has no reservations about exposing and criticizing the tactics of heavyweights who want to protect the status quo. On the subject of pay inequality, for example, Bravo writes: "The reason women earn so little money is -- their employers pay them so little money. Why do their employers pay them so little? Because they can, and because they think they have to in order to compete."

Taking On The Big Boys is more than rant against the power elite of the employer lobby, however. It's also a compassionate argument for feminism as a positive force for social transformation, and a practical guide to working for change. The Big Boys, Bravo explains, "have a huge stake in making us think the status quo is inevitable, immutable. They minimize both the need for and the existence of opposition, characterizing people as satisfied or apathetic…But more typical are people who simply feel disheartened, disempowered, disenfranchised, overwhelmed -- or afraid. What they lack isn't a belief in the need for change, but a sense of how to accomplish it."

The MMO recently interviewed Ellen Bravo about her new book and how to change the workplace.

MMO: According to the "Big Boys," the only barriers to women's full equality are the ones we create ourselves. Who are the Big Boys, and what are their favored strategies for protecting the status quo?

Ellen Bravo: The Big Boys are what I call the powers-that-be -- those who control wealth and power in our country, and their spokespeople. They profit from our labor, set the conditions under which we work, create or greatly influence public policy. In addition to running the show, the Big Boys also control its description. By their reckoning, the status quo isn't a particular system that serves their interest. It's inevitable and beneficial to all. Because they're in charge, they get to tell the story of what's happening in the world -- what's working, what the problems are, what solutions are needed. Anyone can put forward opposing views. But the Big Boys' version is the one we hear most often.

I came up with this shorthand to describe how the Big Boys operate. They:

Minimize -- what problem? ("Women have it made.")

Trivialize -- that's a problem? ("Feminism means ugly women will sue to get a man.")

Patronize -- you don't understand the needs of business. ("You think you can socially engineer behavior.")

Demonize -- you're the problem ("Women shouldn't have kids if they can't afford to raise them.")

Catastrophize -- your solution will cause greater problems for the very ones you want to help ("These laws you want to pass will lead to discrimination against women. You'll drive business out and cause people to lose their jobs.")

Compartmentalize -- if you get what you want, it will hurt some other group ("Why should non-parents bear the burden of mothers taking off to deal with their kids?")

In general, the Big Boys deny there is a problem -- and if there is, they blame it on women's deficiencies or choices. The only thing they say we need to change is ourselves. This conveniently takes the heat off the root of the problem.

MMO: The Big Boys and their minions argue that women workers are paid less and are underrepresented in higher status jobs because they make different choices about work and family than men do. Although research findings repeatedly challenge that worldview, this particular narrative seems to be practically unkillable. For budding grass-roots activists, what are the most important steps we can take to dispel the myth that women's inequality is self-selected?

Ellen Bravo: We need to shine a light on the real problems -- the lack of options that exist for women and men to be whole people who can integrate work and personal lives, not to mention the fact that the lowest-paid jobs are the LEAST flexible. Even those who aren't parents have parents or partners or other loved ones and interests beyond work, and need time and flexibility. Steps include the many ways women activists are creating their own media and trying to utilize mainstream media -- writing op eds and letters telling the truth of their own lives, and creating newsworthy events that get covered. The most effective way to do that is to build grassroots organizations with activities that are accessible even to those with little time and no money.

MMO: You explain why it's not enough to "raise the floor" and "shatter the glass ceiling" -- we need to change the way we organize and think about work in the United States, to "redesign the building from the ground up." What will that look like, and where do we begin?

Ellen Bravo: The good news is that we know what the redesigned building looks like because all or parts of it exist already, in individual companies in this country and entire countries in much of the rest of the world. For parents, it means being able to share up to a year of paid leave and returning to work at reduced hours with no penalty in pay rates or benefits or advancement opportunities. After that year, the child can go to quality child care starting at 10 hours a week or so and gradually increasing but always within a reasonable amount -- the access to trained (and well-compensated) personnel and good social interaction would be a draw, especially combined with lots of time with parents at home. A full-time work week would be no more than 35 hours, and parents could arrange their hours to avoid rushed mornings or child care or school squeezes at the end of the day.

The costs for all these reforms (including universal health care) have been estimated at 1.5 percent of the Gross Domestic Product. That's a mere fifth of what the government is now spending on corporate handouts. We can easily afford it if we can create the political will.

Where to begin? By working as part of a network of diverse state coalitions for new minimum standards like paid sick days and paid family and medical leave.

next page: the truth about mean, ugly feminists

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