Organizer and Feminist Arelia Valdivia on the Issues of Sexism in Labor Unions

Jun 3, 2021
4:33 PM

Arelia Valdivia asks herself, “Am I a bad feminist?” after years of engaging with difficult conversations and pushing her male colleagues on issues of sexism. The question is born out of the notion that it’s not her responsibility to teach, challenge or engage with sexists. It’s a legitimate argument, for the emotional labor of such difficult conversations is often thankless and almost always unpaid. Additionally, it’s men who are responsible for our own education. It’s not the responsibility of women in general and it certainly is not the responsibility of Arelia specifically. But Arelia is an organizer and that complicates things.

Organizers are activists who work to unite community. That means organizers must engage with a broad base of people regardless of whether the people are “woke” or not. Real community is flawed, problematic, and imperfect. When you organize workers into a collective bargaining unit you can’t choose the workers. If you’ve never done this work let me help you picture it. Think about the worst job you’ve ever had. Now think of the worst coworkers at that job. The workers who are at best annoying and at worst have some deeply hateful and dangerous personalities. Now that you’ve remembered them, imagine that you’re going to organize a union at this horrible job. If you want to win guess who you need to work with? It’s the coworkers you hate. No one said solidarity was easy. Arelia summarizes organizing as, “Meeting people where they’re at, challenging them, and pushing them forward.”

When I wrote “Pobrecito Wao: #MeToo and the Code of Silence,” I was in a space in my head where I realized that I have been complicit in sexism and sexual harassment through my silence. There is a sense of denial or a disconnect when sexists are activists or artists we respect. Even worse, there can be an urge to get defensive or protective when the perpetrators are homies. I know this from experience. It’s why I know that Arelia felt these things too. But where Arelia and I differ is that she chose to speak out and challenge sexist behavior from within the movement she’s worked so hard to build. In other words, she’s the kind of mujer that makes the movement better.

Arelia is the Worker Justice Organizing Manager at The Center for Popular Democracy. She has over a decade of organizing experience with MEChA, Warehouse Workers United, and UNITEHERE local 11.


Arturo “Tootie” Alvarez is based in Chicago. He trucks. He writes. Not at the same time. Twitter @TootieAlvarez.