The Women’s Strike in Britain: A Continuous Practice of Feminist Solidarity

Doris Salcedo, La Casa Viuda II (1993-94).

The Women’s Strike Assembly (WSA) in Britain began with women coming together to explore our visions of the red feminist horizon – what it could look like and, crucially – how we could get there. We are not the first generation, nor will we be the last, to know that women’s liberation must be central to all social movements. We are not asking for our fair share under capitalism, we have zero desire for a notion of equality that promises nothing more than being equal to a wage slave: instead we are seeking to destroy altogether the system that by its very design divides, harms, and exploits us. We already know women’s liberation to be at the heart of the struggle. But just so we are clear: there will be no revolution until women’s lives and our labor are central to every political question.

The social and class composition of the WSA differs from much of the so-called feminism currently coming out of Britain. In part because it is a movement that emerges from an understanding of women and feminized people’s position as workers – both waged and unwaged – who are exploited and oppressed under capitalism. The WSA is an open-ended and heterogeneous movement connected by bonds of solidarity, rather than a feminism that begins from a reductive and universalizing notion of womanhood and makes policing the boundaries of Woman its sole cause. In part this has been informed by the fact that the WSA emerged from organizations of sex workers, among whom, trans, migrant, and working class women are over-represented, and this informs how we organize.

In 2018, on March 8 in London we organized a defiant direct action at the Department of Health to demand urgent action on trans healthcare. In the afternoon, over a 1000 people assembled for over four hours in central London, arriving from university picket lines in their hundreds and walking out of their offices, homes and factories. A social reproduction collective of mainly men organized collective childcare and cooked food to feed the whole assembly. We stood in solidarity with our Kurdish sisters, making it clear that we will defend the revolution in Rojava because their liberation is bound up with ours. Later in the day, we picketed pro-life religious organizations and joined striking cleaners who occupied the clothes store, Topshop to highlight their disgusting treatment of workers. In the evening we took over the streets of Soho and marched with sex workers who were on strike for the decriminalization of all forms of sex work. We heard from migrant sex workers who were arrested and humiliated during so-called “anti-trafficking” raids that did nothing for women in the sex industry and everything for property developers. We listened to strippers who are denied basic employment rights. The evening ended with hundreds of comrades joining the Picturehouse workers who have been striking and protesting for over a year to demand the living wage and decent working conditions.

In 2019, on March 8 there was a trans-led prison abolitionist action that occupied the Ministry of Justice in central London happening simultaneously with My Mum is On Strike assemblies that included free childcare and consciousness-raising sessions for over 500 mothers, parents and their kids in five local communities around London. At 5pm over 5000 feminists of all genders, including Kurdish and Latinx women’s groups assembled outside the Bank of England and we marched and shut down the center of London and Soho, the traditional red light district. In 2019 the strike spread to cities and towns across the country including Leeds, Liverpool, Brighton, Bristol, Cardiff, Derry and Edinburgh. In many of the towns across the country the strike assemblies were set up by Italian and Spanish comrades, with one of the common slogans across the country, When We Stop, The World Stops With Us, echoing the politics of the Spanish Women’s Strike.

One of the issues which emerges from crises of reproduction is that they are always contradictory crises, and as such, call for a twofold, even contradictory response. On the one hand, we want to work to resist a politics of care which valorizes a certain notion of “women’s work,” and helps to reify certain gender relations, even gender itself. This is of course one of the ways neoliberal capitalism, or what we might call austerity, is able – through the state – to get away with brutal cuts to social services: by relying on the super-exploitation of the feminized and racialized, knowing that many of us will pick up the pieces, because it is literally a matter of our survival. And on the other hand, because it is a matter of survival, we have to meet people’s needs. This is where the Women’s Strike works in two directions: it is an event, a strike, which is a refusal, however impossible, of the labor we are cornered into in a way that brings to light how much the world relies on us. And yet, because this isn’t simply a politics of visibility, and because we don’t simply want to – and in fact can’t – return to the previous order of things, the Women’s Strike is more than just an event, it is a movement, a continuous and militant practice of feminist solidarity with communism at its core.

Tying together the crises of reproduction, of migration (or rather the crisis which is itself the border), and the general crisis of capital, one aspects of our work that emerged from the current political climate we find ourselves in – and specifically from a series of open “On Violence” assemblies that directly focused on the question of violence in our communities – was the development of the Feminist Anti-fascist Assembly in September 2018. This was at once a response to the mobilization of the far right around the issue of “grooming gangs,” which extrapolated from a few high profile cases in order to conjure a figure of the predatory Muslim man, and in turn, the need to “save” white women. What these very real cases of sexual abuse pointed to was the failure of both the state and the left to provide adequate support structures, leaving a vacuum for far-right groups to step in. In a similar sense, then, we are faced with the problem of mobilizing on two fronts. The first is to provide networks of solidarity and support, which provide an alternative to fascist forms of social reproduction, as the majority of people we might call “far-right” are connected by a sense of need prior to any commitment to white supremacy. The second is, through and alongside this, to build a militant mass movement led by women and trans people who will stop at nothing to face down fascists wherever they are.

The WSA operates as a challenge to traditional, male dominated trade unions that ignore the reality of our lives. For too long, unions have contributed to the marginalization of reproductive labor, considering its underpaid and precarious workers either too difficult or not important enough to unionize. In their failure to consider reproductive work “real” work, many unions have not fought for vast swathes of the working class. If unions want to remain relevant they need to take seriously the task that the WSA poses, that women’s lives and labor must become central to the labor movement. In Glasgow, we have seen a leading example of how women are already doing this on their own terms: with thousands of low paid women organizing, striking and winning with or without official union backing.

In contrast, grassroots radical base unions offer the promise of a new form of unionism that have already begun working closely and within the WSA. These unions predominantly center the work of migrant women in feminized industries, particularly commercial cleaning. Beginning in June 2018, the WSA helped to initiate a unionization drive of workers across Britain’s sex industry with the grassroots union, United Voices of the World. We want to unionize the sex industry because we want to build collective power. We are not interested in passing judgement on what type of work people do. Working within these new unions, the WSA has begun the task of connecting the struggles of underpaid and exploited sex workers and cleaners with the unpaid reproductive labor done by women in the home. The future of the labor movement has rarely looked as bright, exciting, and joyful, as it did in the summer of 2018 at a fundraising party organized by unionized strippers to raise a strike fund for cleaners at the Ministry of Justice. In a similar way, as a result of the “My Mum Is On Strike” events held across London during the strike this year, we have started to develop and strategize about how childcare could also be re-organized and unionized, so that it is both accessible and well-paid.

There has been increased energy in and around electoral politics since the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party in 2015. This has created a mixed climate for extra parliamentary organizing. In some cases, energy from what might broadly be called “the left,” including feminist campaigners, has been directed towards often bureaucratic and policy-focused struggles, including general and local elections and elections within the apparatus of the Labour Party. However, local victories have been won through this electoral shift, including on housing provision, and national debate has shifted significantly as figures from new, often young, left streams within Labour have been given more of a mainstream platform. So, too, has mobilizing increased around the Labour Party, in particular through organizations adjacent to the party, such as Momentum and The World Transformed. Boasting thousands of members throughout Britain and Ireland, these organizations were founded after Corbyn’s victory, to maintain momentum that led to his rise, and to further political organization and education outside of Labour’s formal channels.

For the WSA, which has had an extra-parliamentary focus since its founding, and in its organizing and political discussions, these dynamics have not been center stage. They have, however, impacted the context in which the WSA is operating. This has materialized most concretely through informal networks, where people involved in Momentum, The World Transformed and the Labour Party have brought the Women’s Strike into meetings and discussions, offered solidarity and support through informal networks. These institutions, too, have provided fertile ground for sections of the WSA to push towards more progressive positions: some involved in the Sex / Work Strike are also in touch with the National Decrim Now campaign, and its Labour4Decrim arm, which launched at The World Transformed festival in 2018, an event which takes place in parallel to Labour Party Conference. Alliances, too, have been built around anti-racist work. Momentum in particular worked with members of the WSA in the six months leading up to strike this year on anti-fascist work. Momentum publicly and nationally endorsed, and mobilized through their network for a 8,000 strong anti-fascist march in central London of which Feminist Anti-Fascist Assembly was a founding coalition member. These relationships have been fruitful for a number of reasons. Chiefly, they have allowed for WSA to contact more people and invite them into our organizing, events, demonstrations, and political discussion. It has, too, provided a more official and mainstream inroad for this “radical” political work, particularly in transforming anti-fascism to be militantly and explicitly feminist and more widely accessible, and thus rejuvenated in its street presence and political relevancy. For the WSA too, it has provided channels for the militant history of International Women’s Day, and the need for active, militant feminism in the current social conditions, to be heard in a more mainstream context. For extra-parliamentary organizers, this has meant having to work in ways that allow large organizations such as Momentum, as well as NGOs, to feel comfortable calling their members out to street mobilizations.

One of the crucial insights to take away from these first few tentative months of feminist anti-fascist organizing is that we have been able to link together so many different women’s struggles – from Kurdistan, to Brazil, to the deindustrialized north, to our trans sisters’ right for dignity and liberation. A week after we blocked the fascists in the streets on October 9, 2018, 8,000 care workers went on strike in Glasgow and unsurprisingly it felt like the same fight. Because it is and it is precisely what the red feminist horizons demands. That our fight against fascism, much like our fight against the endemic nature of sexual violence or our struggle to halt the currently unfolding ecological collapse must put women – our lives and our labor – at the center of understanding crisis and also at the center of what it means to win.

Authors of the article

is an activist in the Women’s Strike Assembly.

is an activist in the Women’s Strike Assembly.

is an activist in the Women’s Strike Assembly.

is an activist in the Women’s Strike Assembly.