Print this page

Women's Strikes Are a Reminder That Women Produce Most of the Wealth in Society

Friday, February 09, 2018 By Sarah Jaffe, Truthout | Interview
  • font size decrease font size decrease font size increase font size increase font size

Women march with signs as hundreds protest at the Women's march in Berlin for the rights of women all over the world. (Photo: Lorena de la Cuesta / SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty Images)Women march with signs as hundreds protest at the Women's March in Berlin for the rights of women all over the world. (Photo: Lorena de la Cuesta / SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty Images)

Welcome to Interviews for Resistance. We're now more than a year into the Trump administration, and activists have scored some important victories in those months. Yet there is always more to be done, and for many people, the question of where to focus and how to help remains. In this series, we talk with organizers, agitators and educators, not only about how to resist, but how to build a better world. Today's interview is the 109th in the series. Click here for the most recent interview before this one.

Today we bring you a conversation with Cinzia Arruzza and Tithi Bhattacharya, two national organizers for the International Women's Strike. They discuss how the labor movement is inherently connected to the #MeToo movement and how women globally are preparing for another women's strike on March 8.

Let's talk about the history of women's strikes, because this is something that has been around for several decades in the women's movement, but is coming back right now.

Cinzia Arruzza: Women's strikes are not entirely a novelty -- although they are to the extent that now it has become a formal struggle that is international, widespread, and that is giving identity to this new feminist movement, they are a novelty. The precedent of the women's strike was in the 1970s, the Women's Strike in Iceland for equal wages. What happened is that two years ago, the Polish feminist movement decided to retrieve this form of struggle and to organize a women's strike in Poland against the abortion ban. The same [happened] also in 2016 in Argentina, with the waves of women's strikes and mobilizations against gender violence.

Women's strikes make apparent not just the victimization of women, but also the power that women have.

Starting from there, and especially given the enormous success of these mobilizations and strikes in Argentina and Poland, there was the idea of trying to organize an International Women's Strike on March 8.... Women's strikes are [a] very powerful way of mobilizing for the feminist movement because they make apparent not just the victimization of women, but also the power that women have insofar as they are workers ... both in the formal labor market, but also in the social reproductive sphere, at home, and so on. So, the idea that women can strike as women makes evident the kind of work ... that women perform, that is the level that sustains life on the planet.... [and] the power that women potentially have precisely because they do perform this labor. This labor is very often not recognized or valued as it should [be].

Tithi Bhattacharya: Even last year when this was declared, there was some pushback over the word "strike," because the understanding of the word "strike" as it has come to be accepted is work stoppage at the point of production. That is a very, very important and powerful ... definition of "strike" or instantiation of strike. However, the word "strike" has several other historical applications....

I think one of the things that we found it very easy to talk about in the context of last year, as well as this year, is the difference between a workplace strike and a political strike. I think Women's Strike was very, very important contribution to the legacy of a political strike because in the context of the neoliberal decline of union density globally, because of the active attack on unions since the 1970s and 1980s by the global ruling elite, I think working-class people have significantly lost the most powerful weapon to strike within the workplace, which is unions.

That does not mean, as many people have assumed, that either the working class is dead ... or does not respond to continuous attacks upon its living conditions and working conditions. I think, in that context, a political strike is very, very important, because what happened on March 8 last year, just in the United States, it was called a strike. We were very, very dedicated to maintaining that identification of that word, but what happened as a result was that there was intense political discussion about the relationship between the workplace and the non-workplace kinds of mobilization.... We strongly believe that in a period where there is loss of power to take action in the workplace, the political strike is a useful way to restart that conversation and perhaps flow back that power into workplace mobilization.

We have seen the revival of interest in the idea of the political strike, especially in the US since Trump was elected. There were several "Days Without an Immigrant" last year. There were things like the Yemeni Bodega Strike and the New York Taxi Workers' Strike that were specifically in response to Trump policies. It is interesting in this moment that we are seeing a revival of the idea of the political strike even as unions -- particularly in this country, but globally, as well -- are struggling.

Arruzza: I do think it is very important. Of course, ... these allusions to political strikes ... mark the fact that clearly, people living in the United States, and workers are deprived of one of the most crucial means of struggle and protest that is usually recognized in other liberal democracies. I am not even speaking about insurrectionary forms of struggle. Political strikes do take place in a number of countries. They are legal, they are recognized, and they are a very powerful tool whenever the government seems to be impossible -- to challenge or to influence in another way.... I do hope that this appeal [that] these political strikes are having in this moment can actually reopen political conversation and a political campaign to reform labor laws and to really rethink in a very deep way what labor rights should look like in the United States, because clearly the United States has the most anti-democratic labor laws among liberal democracies. It is really a very exceptional situation.

This relationship between life and work is often forgotten by union bureaucracies.

Bhattacharya: In terms of the political strike, there are two things that are really, really important. The first is to claim ... the idea that striking is not just about ... "bread and butter" issues. Bread and butter issues would mean ... questions about working conditions, but only about wage struggles within the workplace or benefits that come with the job. One of the important things to remember, when questions of women's labor and women's strike is paramount ... is the reason people strike is because of the poor conditions of their life.... It is because the job is a means to live their life, and when conditions of life are deteriorating, that is when people consider doing something about it in their workplace.

It is very simple, but it is important to keep in mind that actually, it is the lived conditions of working people that ... make them think about struggle against those deteriorating living conditions and also give them the confidence to fight because things become so dire that there is only one way left to live with any kind of dignity and that is to struggle. So, this relationship between life and work is often forgotten by union bureaucracies. Union bureaucracies like to treat the union as another kind of a salaried little space where job struggles are negotiated as simply contract negotiations. But, for working class people, it is not about the contract negotiation -- it is in the literal sense -- but it is about their lives and lived conditions.

Political strikes are very important because in the case of either the lack of unions in the workplace or the kind of unions that bind you to that sort of contract negotiation, political strikes talk about a wider world of better living. In other words, a political strike brings back into focus "bread and roses" rather than "bread and butter" issues. It gives a wider, deeper context to the meaning of struggle and the gains to be had from struggle and solidarity. I think, particularly in this context, political strikes play that vital role of reminding people between lived conditions of workers and work conditions and how they are both connected and actually necessary to be connected.

Just for people who might not know the history, tell us quickly where the term "bread and roses" comes from.

Bhattacharya: It is from a poem and a song that was written during the Lawrence Strike ... which was a strike action by women workers, and a strike action that won.... But it also came in the wave of strikes and union organizing in the workplace by women, starting from the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York down to the first labor unions that sprung up with women in them, organized by very young women immigrants in this country. That song is a very important reminder of both the power of this concept -- that we strike for life and life conditions -- but also a reminder of the role that women have played in workplace struggles.

This strike is coming this year in the midst of the #MeToo movement. Talk about this context where there is this renewed conversation about sexual harassment and sexual violence and how that is playing into this year's strike and organizing.

Arruzza: I would say that I think we should also see a connection between the wave of feminist mobilizations around the world in the past year-and-a-half and ... the explosion of the #MeToo campaign.... The #MeToo moment has been a very important moment in the United States -- and also internationally -- because it has probably made apparent what a lot of women already knew, which is that sexual harassment and violence are part of the everyday life of the majority of women -- either in the workplace or at home or in the streets. Clearly, gender violence does require a collective response. So, from this viewpoint, the Women's Strike is not so much an alternative to #MeToo; it is rather one contribution or one attempt to try to give a collective response to the isolation that victimization produces.

The lack of unionization, the lack of labor rights in the [US] clearly create further conditions for gender violence.

The idea is that the step forward after #MeToo -- after denouncing individually all the harassment and violence that we have suffered throughout our life -- there must be, also, the moment of collective organizing and collective response. Otherwise, the structural conditions that enable this gender violence to continue are not challenged. One of the risks of the current attention on the issues of gender violence is that we will get rid of a few obnoxious harassers, some famous and some less famous, and this is all good, of course. I welcome this moment of catharsis, in a sense; but this is not going to solve any problem.

In other words, the real problem is not individual nasty men. The real problems are the structural conditions that create the conditions and the impunity for gender violence and sexual violence. From this viewpoint and for the perspective of the strike, it is actually very important, because clearly now we have learned in the past months to what extent women are harassed and abused ... in the workplace, but this clearly has to do with the way the workplace is organized, and it has to do with labor relations, more generally. It has to do with the hierarchical nature of labor relations within the workplace, with the lack of power that the workers have.

#MeToo has actually exposed how dictatorial and brutal the workplace is for most women.

Also, from this viewpoint, the lack of unionization, the lack of labor rights in the [US] clearly create further conditions for gender violence because women are going to be constantly afraid to speak up against their views of a colleague or of an employer, precisely because they don't feel they have any kind of protection. They don't feel that they have any kind of organizing, collective infrastructure that can actually protect their interests. This is also why we are broadening the scope of what we mean by "gender violence" and addressing a set of issues with the strike that are not immediately commonly perceived as related to gender violence, but that for us are actually the structural social relations that do enable or even promote gender violence.

Bhattacharya: I am just going to add actually three very specific things to the #MeToo moment that I think March 8 is concerned with. This is the beginning of why we addressed #MeToo in our organizing. The first is: When last do you remember seeing discussions of work conditions in The New York Times repeatedly? That is what #MeToo has done. We have never seen so many articles in major media outlets about working conditions of women. Yes, it has been mostly about sexual violence about women, but it has actually exposed how dictatorial and brutal the workplace is for most women, but also for most people. This is a tremendous discussion. I have not seen discussions of working conditions to this extent.... Of course, the liberal media doesn't call it "working conditions," but we all know that this is a discussion of workplace conditions. This is a very, very welcome development that for the first time in many, many years we are seeing questions being raised about what it means to be a worker in this country.

The second is a realization that was limited first to socialists and radicals in this country, but has now begun to become common sense: That is, we all know that since the early part of the 20th century ... to now, there has been an undoubtedly marked increase in women's rights and women's participation in the public sphere and the sphere of work. It doesn't matter that there has been tremendous backlash to those rights -- to reproductive justice, to actual wages, and so on. But if we consider the lives of our great-grandmothers in any country and to our own lives, I think we can say we are in a better place. I certainly don't want to go back to the 1890s as a woman in any part of the world. We have, in a way, through struggles improved our lives as women.

But, on a parallel track, I think what has happened is the rights of workers have declined precipitously, particularly since the 1970s and 1980s with the rise of neoliberalism. Now we have a contradictory situation where our rights as women have improved over the years, in a certain sense, but the rights of workers as a whole have declined. Which means that in workplace situations, it becomes that women, particularly, are very vulnerable as workers because that is where the oppression as women and the declining conditions as workers come together.

The solution that capitalism has offered us is, "Because you can improve as a woman, then it is every woman for herself." The solution offered to bad conditions of life and work for women has been, of course, "Lean In." That you can improve and you can become a CEO. That is the second kind of development.

Because we produce the wealth in society, we can also stop producing that wealth and stop society from running.

The third, which I think is very significant for our purposes, is....  How do we then fight back? The reason there has been so much talk of fight back is precisely ... because the conversation is about working conditions, #MeToo conversations. We all know domestic violence exists to a horrific extent both in the United States and globally, but the advantage of a workplace discussion in this situation is that there are witnesses and there are people who have experienced the same thing because they are your co-workers.... So, there is a collective confidence because you have been through this collective experience and this is why, I think, the voice of the #MeToo campaign is amplified -- because it comes from a collective place of resistance.

Tell us about the organizing for this year's strike: What is planned where so far, and about the international solidarity work going on, as well?

Bhattacharya: Internationally, I have been on a few phone calls with the international organizing and it is actually going really well in various parts of the world -- notably Italy, Spain, Poland, Argentina, and various other places in Latin America. In the UK, where I was last month, the core organizing center is called the Women's Strike Assembly and they are doing fabulous work in linking up March 8 with the ongoing discussions and organizing for university-wide strike of faculty that is coming up. They are making contacts with faculty members across the UK to coordinate strike action and the organizers in the UK are tireless in going to various strike meetings, etc.

The most amazing thing is that because it is organized by women and feminists, all of these actions globally have some similar features. For instance, when they organize something, they always have childcare ... with food and innovative games for kids to play. In other words, to actually be happy and occupied while their moms are doing politics. These are some of the most hilarious, but absolutely inspiring features that all of this organizing has in common internationally.

In the US, the more ambitious plan for us this year ... is actually to build from what we managed to initiate only as a conversation last year: the question of a political strike. To actually put that forward in a slightly more concrete way and to call for a one-hour work stoppage. Right now, across the country, that on March 8, we will stop work for one hour as women in order to show the bosses and their backers in the White House that because we produce the wealth in society, we can also stop producing that wealth and stop society from running. It is a symbolic reminder of our power as women and workers. We are working with various unions to make that happen.

Arruzza: First of all, we have reactivated a form of national planning committee that is basically a network of various activists across the country who are volunteering their time and their work for this strike. We had, in New York, a public launch of the Women's Strike with a wonderful panel that was featuring some really incredible speakers.... In this sense, this event, for example, gave a sense of the kind of energy, but also the kind of women that the women's strike is trying to organize -- especially working-class women, minority women who are not just participating in the strike, but also waging a lot of struggles and fights in the workplace, against ICE, and so on -- and sometimes actually winning something and showing in this way that collective action actually does get the goods sometimes.

With this spirit in New York, we are working on the one-hour strike and discussing with labor organizations ... to see in what way it is possible to organize an hour work stoppage. We will, also, have a rally and march that will follow the one-hour work stoppage. We think we will have demonstrations and marches and walkouts in most of the biggest cities in the [US]. Organizers are already working on the strike in LA, in the Bay Area, in Portland, in Philly. We are also receiving a lot of contacts, emails, messages from people who are interested -- who read, for example, the article we published in the Guardian calling for a strike in the United States this year -- and who are interested in getting on board.

As usual, this is an entirely voluntary effort that is really based on grassroots organizations. It is self-funded. People are volunteering their time and their work, but in a sense, this is also the beauty of it ... that around the organization of the strike, we are somehow consolidating an area of anti-capitalist feminism that is offering an alternative to the kind of corporate and "Lean In" feminism that has been dominating in past years. I think there is the political space and desire for this, at least judging from the response that a lot of feminist activists around the country are giving to the idea of organizing on the strike and the enthusiasm that they are putting into this project.

Of course, those who want to get on board can contact us through the website or the Facebook page and organize a strike in their city.

Note: This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission.

Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.

Sarah Jaffe

Sarah Jaffe is a reporting fellow at The Nation Institute and has covered labor, social and economic justice and politics for Truthout, The Atlantic, The Guardian, In These Times and many other publications. She is the cohost of Belabored, a labor podcast hosted by Dissent magazine, and the author of Necessary Trouble: Americans In Revolt (Nation Books, 2016). Follow her on Twitter: @sarahljaffe.