Women Strike the Empire: The Women’s Strike in the United States

Louise Bourgeois, no. 13 of 14, from À l’Infini

When feminist activists and intellectuals published a collective statement calling for a feminism for the 99% and for a day of action in solidarity with the International Women’s Strike in 2017, the response was heart-lifting: after only two weeks, and after countless hours of frantic collective work, a national network of grassroots groups, informal collectives, national feminist and labor organizations was born – International Women’s Strike-US. In only three weeks this network managed to organize demonstrations in all major cities of the country and to challenge the hegemony of liberal and corporate feminism in mainstream media. Moreover, three school districts in states with harsh anti-labor laws shut down on March 8, because a large number of teachers called out sick.

The IWS-US network is currently expanding and organizing its second women’s strike. Within this network, women coming from different traditions and political cultures are rediscovering the joy of solidarity and trust among different struggles and different voices. What unites us is the desire to articulate a different kind of feminism, one which has as protagonists the women who have been left behind by lean-in and corporate feminism and who are suffering from the consequences of decades of neoliberalism and war: poor and working-class women, women of color and migrant women, disabled, Muslim, and trans women. Given the large presence of migrant women and women of Latina/o or Arab background within our ranks, the international dimension of the strike has been one of the main mobilizing factors, in particular as we linked the building of international solidarity among feminist movements to our opposition to US imperialism and the war on terror.

The adoption of the strike as a form of struggle and as a political profile has been key to us. First of all, we articulated the idea of a women’s strike within a political and theoretical reflection on the concrete forms of women’s labor in capitalist societies. Women’s work in the formal labor market is only a part of the work performed by women: we consider social reproductive work to be equally important, even when it is unpaid. A women’s strike is meant to make this unpaid work visible and to suggest that social reproduction is a key site of struggle. Moreover, because of the sexual division of labor in the formal labor market, a vast number of women hold precarious jobs, don’t have labor rights, are unemployed or are undocumented workers. This is why in order to include low-wage, unemployed and undocumented women, the notion of strike had to be broadened in such a way as to include not only strikes in the workplace but also strikes from unpaid social reproductive work, part-time strikes, calls to employers to close business earlier, the organization of boycotts, and other forms of protest that are sensitive to the gendered nature of social relations. Strike has become the umbrella term under which these various forms of action are included because it is the term that best emphasizes the centrality of women’s labor and their self-identification as workers, whatever form their work takes.

Secondly, we conceived of our mobilization as a contribution to the rebuilding of class struggle and labor organizing in the United States more widely. The United States has perhaps the worst labor laws among liberal democracies. General strikes and political strikes are forbidden, strikes are tied to narrow economic demands addressed to employers, and contracts often have explicit no-strike clauses, the violation of which can cause the worker to lose their job and/or incur hefty fines to the union organizing the strike. Additionally, several states, such as New York, have laws that explicitly forbid public employees from striking. As a result of this situation, as well as of the legalism and business orientation of the unions’ leaderships, rates of unionization are abysmally low. This concretely means that almost the totality of workers in the US have no legal means of collective negotiation and defense or assertion of their labor rights. In many cases they don’t have any access to basic benefits, such as employer-funded health insurance or pension, paid sick leave, or parental leave, not to speak of job security. It should go without saying that the absence of basic labor rights combined with prohibitive costs for childcare or assistance for the elderly and the sick puts an enormous burden on working women. Past decades of attacks on labor organizing and continuous decline of unionization have demonstrated that compliance with federal and state labor laws – which is the standard position of “business unionism” – is a dead end. The women’s strike was meant to contribute to the political re-legitimation of the very notion of the strike within US political discourse, as well as to offer a national platform and visibility to attempts at wildcat and political strikes in the workplace.

This year we have worked on strengthening our ties with radical union locals and workers’ centers which specifically organize low-wage women in the service industry (especially household occupations), who are often also migrant women and women of color. We have called for an hour-long strike in order to verify the possibility of co-organizing actual work stoppages around the country. At the same time, we have also indicated that there are multiple ways to participate in the strike, from organizing and participating in picket lines and actions of civil disobedience, to joining demonstrations and rallies, to showing symbolic support to the strike in the workplace. Finally, we have adopted a non-separatist practice: we conceive of our mobilization as part and parcel of a broader struggle addressed not only against heterosexism, but also against capitalism and white supremacy. As we consider that full women’s and sexual liberation cannot be achieved within capitalism and the current system of racial domination, we have developed a practice of forging alliances with mixed gender organizations and of supporting ongoing struggles, from Black Lives Matter and the struggle against police brutality and mass incarceration to the struggle against deportations, from last year’s environmentalist and anti-colonial fight against the Dakota Pipeline to the many struggles for unionization around the country.

One of the novelties of the current feminist movement is that contrary to the two previous waves of feminist mobilization, it is not emerging within a context of rising class struggle: in the past, women managed to come together and give voice to specific women’s needs and demands within the fissures and the cracks opened within the system by broader mobilization, from the rise of the workers’ movement to anti-colonial wars and anti-war movements. This is not our scenario today. In several countries, the feminist movement is currently the only coördinated movement on a national scale, and the mobilization around the March 8 strike is the only internationally coördinated mass mobilization currently taking place. This feminist mobilization is, therefore, at the forefront of the struggle, often in extremely difficult social and political conditions. This raises a number of challenges – for example, how to sustain the movement in the long run in the absence of a wider social activation – but it also opens the possibility for a new kind of class recomposition, if the feminist movement expands to become one that involves other social and political agents: one that binds together struggles around production and social reproduction, and that better reflects and articulates an increasingly feminized and racialized global working class.

 

This essay originally appeared as part of a reader available from The Transnational Social Strike Platform.

Author of the article

is a member of the editorial collective at Viewpoint Magazine and an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the New School for Social Research in New York and a feminist and socialist activist. She is the author of the author of Dangerous Liaisons: The Marriages and Divorces of Marxism and Feminism.