Thursday, August 31, 2006

Book Review--Dana Frank, Bananeras: Women Transforming the Banana Unions of Latin America

As a young historian, I ponder on how to make my work matter. My work combines working-class and environmental history so I am in fields where I could theoretically make a difference. I mention this because I recently picked up Dana Frank's new book, Bananeras: Women Transforming the Banana Unions of Latin America, published in 2005 by South End Press. I am familiar with Frank's work from her earlier book, Purchasing Power, on the Seattle labor movement after World War I. I was surprised that this new book was so far in distance (both physical and within the field of labor history) from her earlier work.

Bananeras examines the recent history of gender and labor organizing in the banana unions of Central America. Focusing on Honduras, but looking at the banana region as a whole, which extends from Guatemala to Ecuador, she writes of the difficult history of labor in this region and the particular role of women in breaking into the labor movement.

The best part about this book is Frank's understanding that no effective class analysis can exist without an understanding of the role of gender among working-class people and that a feminist analysis is hopeless without being grounded in class consciousness. The female banana workers of Latin America face multiple obstacles in their quest for justice. On one level, they face the same struggles as male workers. The banana companies want to crush unions at all costs. The Ecuadoran government has made their nation a haven for non-union banana plantations, undermining union organizing throughout the region. The police work in conjunction with companies and governments to undermine even the slightest sniff of radicalism. The AFL-CIO made Latin America a major part of their anti-communist union campaigns during the Cold War, seriously undermining the long-term support for any unions from the US working class. Conditions are poor and pay is bad.

But female workers also suffer from an entire additional set of obstacles. Within the workplace, they have particular concerns. Maternity leave is something that the companies don't want to give. Sexual harrassment is an enormous problem. Many Latin American employers fire women when they become pregnant. And the male-dominated union structures don't care. They are usually opposed to female involvement in decision making. They think women's issues don't exist within unions. They laugh at any sort of gender equity. Women, especially in Honduras and Nicaragua, according to Frank, have successfully fought some of this but in most of Latin America it remains a major problem. Women also have to serve as homemakers. Machismo stands in the way of most men doing anything to help around the house. So women might work 10 hours a day, do union work afterwards, and then come home to clean the house. Many husbands resent their wives being invovled in the public sphere. Domestic abuse is a major problem. Homophobia is as well, leading to women, even activist women, being afraid to raise their sons in a gender-neutral way for fear that they will be labeled as homosexuals.

But what I really took from this book is that despite all of these obstacles, for many women union work is incredibly liberating on both a personal and a class level. It gives women something outside of the norm to fill their lives. Not all women can participate because of the problems outlined above, but for those who can break through, it is a wonderful experience.

Bananeras is a well-written and thoughtful book on the role of women in the recent labor history of Latin America. Most importantly, it's a great example of the kind of useful history and writing that a smart scholar can do.