When women workers lead the way
Struggles past and present show the left how we can make the connection between the fight for women’s rights and the struggle for economic and social equality.
FOR YEARS, International Women’s Day on March 8 would pass by without notice in the U.S. beyond a small number of leftists. Most people who noticed on their calendar probably assumed it had something to do with women’s history, but didn’t think much more.
But the radical holiday has been revived in recent years, especially in the era of Trump.
In 2017 and 2018, the historic outpouring of the Women’s Marches was followed up with an international call to strike and protest on March 8. The highlight last year came in the Spanish state, where an incredible 5.2 million women took part in what was called a two-hour “feminist strike.”
This year, the celebration of working women will be more fitting than ever right here in the U.S., the country where the left-wing holiday was born out of workers’ struggles.
The teacher strike wave that began in West Virginia last winter is now over one year old, and it shows no sign of breaking yet.
Educators, unionists and socialists were still digesting the lessons of the victorious Los Angeles teachers’ strike in January and unprecedented wins at — count ’em — three charter schools in four months. The long-awaited teachers’ strike in Oakland is over after shaking the Bay Area city with big mobilizations — though the debate over whether the union could have won more is more intense than previous battles in this strike wave.
One of prime lesson stands out everywhere: women workers have led the way, just as they did in many early battles of the U.S. labor movement.
These teachers’ strikes are about saving public education from the privatizers and reversing decades of austerity policies that have starved our schools and so much else in the neoliberal period. But they also show us that women’s demands and rights must be taken up as part and parcel of the class struggle, just as the class struggle must be connected to achieving women’s rights and equality.
Starting in the “red states” last year and onward into the “blue” states this year, teachers, many of them women, have made it clear that their strikes aren’t about economic interests alone. Educators want the work they do to be valued. They want their students to have decent, fully funded schools that are safe places of learning, where Black, Latinx and immigrant students don’t fear racist repression.
As SocialistWorker.org’s Dana Blanchard reported from West Virginia in 2018:
It’s also inspiring that most of the strikers who were on the front lines in West Virginia were women. In the era of #MeToo, this shows another layer to the struggle against sexism — that women deserve decent, well-paying jobs in addition to workplaces free from harassment.
As the coal jobs dried up in the last decade in West Virginia, women workers often became the sole wage earner in households across the state. Women workers aren’t exempt from raising families and being primary caregivers just because they work one or even two jobs outside the house.
The stories of mothers who made tremendous sacrifices to find childcare for their own kids in order to drive hours to the capital to stand up for the children in their classrooms as well showed the tremendous tenacity of the women strikers.
The women we met in West Virginia are leaders, union militants and organizers, and many of them are also mothers and wives. They refuse to be typecast. They are juggling all the things that capitalism throws at working families while managing to be part of the most exciting act of workers’ resistance in decades.
Just like the women strikers who inspired the first International Working Women’s Day.
GERMAN SOCIALIST Clara Zetkin proposed an International Working Women’s Day in 1910 at the Second International Conference of Working Women.
She wanted to honor a 1908 march of women textile workers in New York City. Women workers made up a large part of several industries, including textiles, where a largely immigrant workforce faced low pay and grueling, dangerous conditions that frequently left their bodies broken.
Some 15,000 women took to the streets on March 8, 1908 — echoing a garment workers’ strike that had begun on the same day half a century earlier — to demand shorter work hours, better pay and an end to child labor, as well as the right to vote.
The slogan “Bread and Roses” would become a rallying cry, with workers demanding not only economic security, but lives for workers filled with the “sharing of life’s glories,” as the poem and song would later put it.
In 1911, more than 1 million working men and women marked International Working Women’s Day in Germany, Austria, Denmark and Switzerland. As the Russian revolutionary Alexandra Kollantai later recounted:
Its success succeeded all expectation. Germany and Austria on Working Women’s Day was one seething, trembling sea of women. Meetings were organized everywhere — in the small towns and even in the villages, halls were packed so full that they had to ask male workers to give up their places for the women.
This was certainly the first show of militancy by the working woman. Men stayed at home with their children for a change, and their wives, the captive housewives, went to meetings. During the largest street demonstrations, in which 30,000 were taking part, the police decided to remove the demonstrators’ banners: the women workers made a stand. In the scuffle that followed, bloodshed was averted only with the help of the socialist deputies in parliament.
In 1912, during a strike of garment workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts, Jewish garment worker, socialist and union organizer Rose Schneiderman would tell a gathered crowd:
What the woman who labors wants is the right to live, not simply exist — the right to life as the rich woman has the right to life, and the sun and music and art. You have nothing that the humblest worker has not a right to have also. The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too. Help, you women of privilege, give her the ballot to fight with.”
A few years later, in 1917, women textile workers in the Russian capital of Petrograd took to the streets on International Women’s Day, protesting against war, deprivation and poor working conditions.
No one knew it that day, but their demonstrations spread into a mass rebellion that toppled one of the world’s most vicious tyrants, the Tsar, in a matter of days — and that began the Russian Revolution and the first lasting experiment in workers’ power.
At the heart of these early struggles forever connected to International Working Women’s Day is a similar aspiration of women workers today, in very different conditions: that women who endure long hours, low wages and challenging work, only to be followed by a “second shift” at home of cooking, cleaning and raising children, deserve better than such drudgery, and certainly not as second-class citizens denied equal rights.
SUCH DEMANDS that go beyond workplace concerns alone are where the future of the labor movement lies. And they offer the left an opportunity to link together struggles around class issues and oppression.
Women workers are right to demand living wages and better workplace conditions. But those in largely female-dominated industries are just as familiar with the experience of sexual harassment and assault that sparked the #MeToo movement.
Those struggles can and should go hand in hand — as women McDonald’s workers, first organized around the Fight for 15 campaign, showed when they walked out in 10 cities last September to protest sexual harassment and assault in a coordinated #MeToo workplace action.
In fact, organizing for that strike gained momentum after McDonald’s announced it was celebrating International Women’s Day — to highlight the company’s “commitment” to women’s lives.
Similar concerns were highlighted during last year’s multi-chain, multi-city hotel workers’ strikes, which raised demands for higher wages and health care benefits alongside protections for immigrant and women workers — including from the rampant sexual harassment that women hotel workers face on the job.
Prior to the strike in Chicago, women hotel housekeeping workers organized to win a city ordinance for “panic buttons” if they faced threats on the job. It was dubbed the “Hands Off, Pants On” ordinance.
As Tina Graham, a UNITE HERE Local 1 shop steward who helped lobby for the ordinance, told Socialist Worker during the strike: “The best thing about it was that we won that for all hotel workers in Chicago, not just those in the union.”
Fighting for the rights of all workers — men and women — means also taking up the urgent fight for reproductive rights and not relying on politicians to protect it.
With abortion rights hanging in the balance, this question can’t be siloed off as a “women’s issue.” The ability of women to control their own bodies and make decisions about when and under what conditions to have children — or to decide to not have children — is central to the fight for full equality and liberation.
We should remember that the same reactionaries who would like to abolish the right to choose abortion are the same ones who want to see unions gutted and every state become “right to work.” And just as backing Democratic politicians for decades has proved fruitless in protecting union and workplace rights, they’ve been of little use on reproductive rights.
Today, a new socialist movement is in the position to link together struggles and fight back on the basis of the principle of solidarity. That can be seen in the slogan of the International Women’s Strike on March 8: a call to build a “feminism for the 99 Percent.” As the call for this year’s actions by International Women’s Strike U.S. puts it:
From the teachers in West Virginia and Arizona to the hotel workers in the Marriott and Hilton chains, successful strikes of women have shaken our labor movement and delivered the goods. At the same time, we recognize that rallies, picket lines, teach-ins, and forums will be first steps to reclaiming March 8 as day for working women in many areas of the country.
And one month after International Women’s Day, reproductive rights groups from around the country have come together to initiate a national day of action to defend abortion clinics on April 6, with plans for action in more than a dozen cities.
With working women leading the charge to fight for their rights in the workplace and beyond, we can be rebuilding a socialist left that remembers the old labor slogan that “an injury to one is an injury to all” — and that demands both bread and roses.