Socialism and dignity: The right to use a bathroom

Access to restrooms and bathroom breaks were demands of the 2015 Milwaukee bus drivers’ and mechanics’ strike. Photo: Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association

Capitalism is humiliation. Having to ask to go to the bathroom can be deeply humiliating.

As a young girl, Julia Wright was escorted by a family friend, Constance Webb, to Manhattan’s Bergdorf Goodman department store. Webb, who was white, asked a clerk where the women’s bathroom was.

The clerk looked over the counter, saw the African American child, the eldest daughter of famed novelist Richard Wright, and said, “There are no restrooms for you!” Shortly thereafter, in 1947, Wright’s family moved to Paris so their daughters could escape this demeaning treatment.

Decades later, individuals and families wander the streets of New York City and wonder where they can go to the bathroom. Everywhere there are signs reading “Bathrooms for customers only.”

People have to buy something in order to use the facilities. The human necessity of adults and children to go to a restroom usually requires money. 

Many bathrooms are not accessible for the disabled. Transgender people have been attacked and arrested for using restrooms.

Where can homeless people go? There used to be public bathrooms in 400 New York City subway stations. Now only a handful are open.

This writer observed a homeless man on a subway car who couldn’t hold it anymore. The man was crying and apologizing to the other subway riders. He was trying to preserve his dignity.

Then his urine flowed down the floor and passengers lifted their feet in order to escape it.

Such a scene couldn’t happen in Havana, and not because the Cuban capital lacks a subway. Despite a cruel U.S. economic blockade, every person in socialist Cuba has dignity. It’s natural for Cuban municipalities to provide free public bathrooms. 

Under capitalism, since it’s based on exploiting human labor, it’s natural to rob people’s dignity.

Human rights and bathrooms

Farmworkers fought for years to have bathrooms. The farm and ranch owners forced workers to relieve themselves in the fields.

Refusing to provide bathrooms wasn’t just a matter of bosses being cheap. It was political.

Landlords wanted farmworkers to be seen as animals. And they wanted workers to feel less than human.

The grape boycott and struggles of the United Farm Workers union led to federal regulations and state laws requiring portable toilets and sinks in the fields. Yet as late as 1988, California and other states weren’t enforcing these rules.

Workers, particularly women workers, are fired for using company bathrooms “too often.” Amazon warehouse workers in Britain skip bathroom breaks to keep their jobs. It’s no different in the United States.

Transit workers have to struggle to get bathroom breaks. That was a big issue in the 2015 strike of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 998 members in Milwaukee. Bus operators were given only a four-minute break at their end of their routes.

These guarantees mean nothing if a bus is running late because of traffic. Some operators are forced to wear diapers. ATU Local 587 members in Seattle faced the same problems.  

The ATU reports that “one study found that not responding to an extreme urge to urinate affected attention and thinking. The effect was equal to that of staying awake for 24 hours or having a blood alcohol level (BAC) of 0.05 percent. For comparison, a commercial driver would be disqualified at a BAC of 0.04 percent.”

The ATU says transit operators have a right to:

  • Rapid access to restrooms when needed, on all routes and all shifts;
  • Safe access to clean, fully equipped facilities along routes and at the end of routes with locations identified and updated;
  • Adequate time to access, use and return from restrooms;
  • No retaliation, discipline or threats for going to the restroom;
  • Restroom use time built into scheduling;
  • Clear policies on restroom access along the route, including how to notify dispatch, safe methods for leaving and securing the bus, communicating with passengers and discharging passengers.

These six demands are absolutely necessary and could be rapidly implemented. Yet workers have to fight for them in the capitalist U.S. and Canada.

Capitalism vs. socialism on the toilet front

Elected officials in New York City have complained for years about the lack of public bathrooms. It’s a problem for the 65 million tourists who spent $44 billion in the Big Apple in 2018.

In 2006, the Spanish company Cemusa — since taken over by the French corporation JCDecaux — won a contract to install public bathrooms in New York. These weren’t free; a quarter was needed to use them.  

The stupendous number of 20 public toilets were ordered for the metropolis of 8.6 million people. In 2018, 15 of them were still in a Queens warehouse.   

Contrast that to the socialist People’s Republic of China, whose President Xi Jinping in 2015 called for better sanitation. The three-year target of 57,000 new public toilets was exceeded and a total of 70,000 were installed by 2018.

Some of these facilities have been criticized for being too luxurious. According to the South China Morning Post, a so-called “five-star public toilet near downtown Chongqing featured TV, Wi-fi, phone chargers, water fountains and automatic shoe polishers.” 

It might have been inspired by Lenin, the leader of the Bolshevik Revolution, who predicted using “gold for the purpose of building public lavatories in the streets of some of the largest cities of the world.” 

The lack of clean public restrooms may hinder people from returning to restaurants, theatres and stadiums in the U.S. after coronavirus shutdowns are lifted

Throughout the U.S. South, laws segregated restrooms and water fountains by race. Racism also prevailed up north, like at Bergdorf Goodman on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue. 

Julia Wright has returned many times to the U.S. to fight for the freedom of her friend Mumia Abu-Jamal. The journalist and former member of the Black Panther Party was framed for the 1981 killing of a Philadelphia police officer.

Abu-Jamal was sentenced to death, and after protests took him off death row in 2011, he is still in prison. Julia Wright has helped lead efforts to free Mumia Abu-Jamal in France, where a street is named after the revolutionary.

During the coronavirus crisis, it’s more urgent than ever to fight to free the prisoners and to provide free, clean, accessible bathrooms for everybody. A socialist revolution will guarantee both.