International Women’s Day 2009: March 8th – a day to celebrate working women’s struggles

“We won’t pay for the bosses’ crisis!”

As capitalism slides faster and further into recession, women world-wide are hard hit by new levels of homelessness, insecurity, poverty, hunger and disease. The contributions below from members of the Committee for a Workers’ International indicate how vital is the role of socialists in the fight-back against the system that condemns them to double, if not treble oppression. All of them finish on the same note – the need to build mass struggle to change society in a socialist direction.

Red Rosa

One of the greatest socialist leaders of the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth century was Rosa Luxembourg – ‘Red Rosa’. She was a revolutionary Marxist, a theoretician and widely respected orator at workers’ meetings and demonstrations. This year marks the 90th anniversary of her brutal murder during the revolutionary period in Germany that followed the First World War and the Russian Revolution. It is inspiring on International Women’s Day to remember the enormous contribution made by this great fighter and teacher. carried an article on 24 January on her life and work, written by Peter Taaffe for the February issue of Socialism Today.

Commemorate the struggles of women workers worldwide

End low pay and exploitation

Sinead Daly, International Socialists (CWI in Scotland)

This celebration on 8 March is rooted in the courageous struggles of working class women in the US in the early 1900s. They demonstrated and struck for better working and living conditions and fought for the right to vote. In 1910, an international women’s conference was hosted by the Socialist (Second) International which agreed to mark International Women’s Day on this date.

The Russian Revolution was sparked off by tens of thousands of women textile workers in St Petersburg, Russia, who walked out of their factories demanding “bread and peace”. These women marched to other factories and called on workers to join them on strike.

Step forward 100 years and women are still struggling against low pay, for better pensions and better living conditions. Women make up 50% of the work force in Scotland; they make up the majority of the part time/casual workforce and are concentrated in the low paying sectors like local government the services and retail sector.

The economic recession that has engulfed the UK economy will spell disaster for hundreds of thousands of working class women.

You only have to walk down the high street in your town and cities to see the impact of the recession. Shops, like Woolworths, Zavvi, The Perfume Shop are now all closed, all of these would have employed mainly women workers. Other companies like Marks and Spencer’s and the banking sector have also announced wholesale job cuts and attacks on wages and conditions.

According to recent government figures women workers will face the brunt of the recession and job losses. In the last quarter alone the number of women in full time employment fell by 53,000 compared with a drop of 36,000 for men. This means that women are losing jobs at twice the rate of men.

These figures only show part of the picture; they don’t show job losses of women who work part-time, agency workers or those on more flexible/casual workers of which women make up a large majority.

Some capitalist ‘experts’ have also warned that the financial crisis may have the effect of condemning more older women into poverty. Scottish Widows reckon that the “pensions gender gap” could widen if more women lose their retirement provision along with their jobs.

Professor Marilyn Davidson of Manchester Business School stated that, “This impact on women is a very new phenomenon that we haven’t faced in this country before…There is certainly the risk that the progress that women have been made could be thrown into reverse”.

Man made?

There are some within the feminist movement who are suggesting that this economic recession is quite literally a “man-made disaster, a monster created in the testosterone-drenched environment of Wall Street and the City”…”We now need to get more women at the top in financial institutions to stop this from happening again”. (Ruth Sunderland, Business editor of The Observer) What they seem to forget is that it was a woman, Margaret Thatcher, who in the UK paved the way. It was she who pursued the neo-liberal policies that allowed the “spivs and speculators” to make these obscene amounts of money while at the same time trying to smash working class communities across Scotland and the UK. (It is now 25 years since the heroic miners’ strike in Britain began.)

This International Women’s Day, with the prospects of the worst economic crisis since 1929, it is worth considering the words written in ‘Our Tasks’ in 1917 by Alexandra Kollontai, a leading figure in the Russian Revolution: “All our strength, all our hope, lies in organisation! Now our slogan must be: ‘Comrade women workers! Do not stand in isolation.’ Isolated, we are but straws that any boss can bend to his will, but organised we are a mighty force that no one can break.

“It is only in revolutionary struggle against the capitalists of every country, and only in union with the working women and men of the whole world, that we will achieve a new and brighter future – the socialist brotherhood (and sisterhood) of the workers.”

United States

Economic crisis has big impact on women workers – Organising to fight back is vital

Dani Indovino, Socialist Alternative

Women are poised to overtake men in the American workforce. While at first this sounds like a victory for women at work, the fact is deceiving. As the economic crisis heats up all over the world, women in the American workforce face a bleak fate. Currently 72% of layoffs are in fields that are composed mainly of male workers, however women workers are positioned to face massive obstacles in the coming months.

Industries that are traditionally female in the United States such as nursing and education are facing staunch budget cuts all over the country. Layoffs are planned to begin as state and local governments are running out of money. Obama’s stimulus package, while delivering some relief, is only temporarily softening a blow that will reverberate around the country. Though unions are organizing to fight back, such as with the large demonstration in New York City on March 5th to stop budget cuts and layoffs, it is an uphill battle.

Women in fields that are traditionally hourly and un-unionized, such as retail and customer service, are likely to see their hours cut severely. For many women this means leaving the workforce all together, as they cannot cover childcare costs with their salaries.

Laid off hourly workers have little choice but to turn to the broken welfare system. Ineligible for unemployment in many cases, they must turn to draconian regulations and long lines and forms in order to feed themselves and their families. Forced to document every moment of their day, they are given much less freedom and trust than unemployment recipients and also are slowly eating away at their five year maximum benefit. Women who have already reached their five years will many times be ineligible for this help at all, and are at the mercy of charities.

The United States Government is paying little attention to the problems of these women workers. Many of the jobs in the stimulus package are heavy manual labor, and while this does not exclude women from applying, there still exists heavy discrimination and bias against women who attempt work in construction. Also, the stimulus bill had no allowances for extra subsidized childcare, and in fact the funding for family planning was removed from the bill as wasteful spending.

Also, social security for elderly women whose husbands are dead or who never had husbands is often even more paltry. The highest population of poor people in the US is elderly women. As the crisis gets deeper and investments and pensions disappear, these women will be left with smaller and smaller stipends to live on.

Without a strong social movement built between women and men to unionize, fight budget cuts and demand free and public childcare and healthcare, women will be more and more negatively affected by the economic crisis. An unfair social welfare system that penalizes women who work outside the home and/or are unmarried is only made more obvious during the crisis. Workers worldwide need to demand a fair and comprehensive bailout for all workers that benefits people, not corporations.

Solidarity with Constantina Kuneva

Brutal attack on trade unionist shocks Greece

Litsa Patra, Xekinima, Greece

On the 22nd of December Constantina Kuneva was brutally attacked with vitriol close to her house. The hired assassins threw acid in her face and then, in order to be sure she would be killed, forced her to drink it, resulting in her being still in an emergency ward now. The attack against Constantina has shocked Greek society and brought to the surface the barbaric working conditions facing tens of thousands of female workers, particularly migrants. At the same time, the message that the killers wanted to pass was clear; any worker trying to resist and fight for his/her rights will die!

Constantina Kuneva is an immigrant female trade unionist, working as a cleaner. Almost 50,000 such workers are “rented” by 40 companies for banks, public companies, hotels etc. At least 15,000 of them work without any trade union rights, are paid less hours than the ones they actually work and the employers force them to sign a voluntary departure when they are employed so that they have no unemployment pay rights, when the employers decide to fire them. Constantina is one of the many women occupied in that sector, most of whom are immigrants, and most of whom are exploited exceedingly. A few days before the attempt against her life, Constantina had stated that she was followed and that she received death threats against her and her child because of her trade union activity. The fact that an immigrant dared to defend her rights and fight for better working conditions, plus the fact that she is general secretary of the cleaners’ trade union, was worrying and outrageous for the employers.

The attack against her showed that precarious work is not only a fact but it is also the future that the system prepares for us in a period of international crisis where fear and insecurity are constantly on the rise. What the Greek government is promoting, and is also a common policy for all countries in the European Union, is working on contracts by month (or by…day!), no stability in the working hours, low wages and of course the split of the trade union movement and the creation of workers without rights.

But Constantina had the courage to go forward and demand nothing less than her rights for better working conditions and a decent life. Already, a strong solidarity movement has developed among youth and workers that face oppression daily and recognise themselves in Constantina. The provocative indifference of the police and the official trade union leadership did not stop dozens of unions, trade-unionists, women’s and anti-racist organizations, and political parties of the left from building up local committees and successful protests in order to open up the issue of precarious labour and to make Constantina’s struggle a workers’ struggle.

England and Wales

International Women’s Day 2009

Don’t make women pay for the bosses’ crisis!

Sarah Sachs-Eldridge, Socialist Party (England and Wales)

Women faced discrimination when the economy is booming. What then will be the consequences for women of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930s? A fightback is necessary to prevent a dramatic increase in women’s oppression.

Over forty years after the Equal Pay Act and after 16 years of uninterrupted economic growth women in Britain in full-time work earn 17.2% less than men on average. With the majority childcare responsibilities and the requisite need for flexible and shorter hours, women also make up 75% of part-time workers who generally suffer lower wages. There is also a 36% difference between the average male part-time wage and that earned by part-time women workers.

The magnificent victory at the Lindsey oil refinery provides a lesson on how militant action can defend and improve all workers’ pay and conditions. In times of economic uncertainty, with a smaller surplus to fight over, bosses will attempt to play different sections of workers off against each other as they did at Lindsey. This can also include playing lower-paid women workers off against better paid male workers. This is a dead end for the working class and must be countered with united action.

Women make up more than half the workforce but occupational gender segregation persists. Women workers remain concentrated in the ‘four Cs’ of childcare, catering, cleaning and cash register where low-pay is the norm. Many retail workers get pennies above the minimum wage. In fact, according to a 2008 TUC report, 30% of working women earn less than £100 a week.

Woolworths, Barratt, Principles…the list of retail chains that are no more is long and likely to grow. A CBI survey shows nearly half of all retailers cut jobs in January. Unemployment looms. This spells disaster for the working class as a whole. A recent TUC report, Women and recession, shows, unemployed women face particular difficulties.

Women with childcare responsibilities generally require part-time or flexible employment. This can place restrictions on their job search.

Limited access to affordable childcare is a huge problem. The website surveyed readers on what the government should do to assist parents in the recession and, unsurprisingly, the vast majority mentioned childcare as an issue. Investment in public nurseries with qualified staff on decent wages would both create employment and aid women going to work.

As women are likely to have been in low-paid work they are less likely to have savings. Where women ‘work to survive’, redundancies can lead to serious immediate poverty. Unemployed women can also have problems receiving Jobseekers Allowance (JSA), particularly income based JSA (which workers move to after six months on JSA) as it is calculated on household income and related to the idea of women as ‘secondary’ earners in the family.

If the government carries on with its horrific onslaught on lone parents’ benefits these pressures and difficulties will be multiplied. 90% of single parent families are women.

Many women were already unemployed when this recession began and data shows that in general unemployed women find a limited work history, due to time off to raise families, a barrier to work. Bosses do not want to invest in training. Workers’ democratic control and management in the workplace is necessary to share out the work without loss of pay and end the obstacles that prevent women from participating fully in all aspects of society.

Extortionate university fees, combined with women’s lower pay, condemn millions of women to a lifetime of debt and poverty. This can have huge repercussions on mental and physical health. The recent demonstration for free education, organised by Socialist Students among others, shows the potential to build a movement to fight for free education, which women in education must urgently build.

One consequence of the recession has been a drop in divorce rates. Does this mean that tightening our belts squeezes our hearts with a positive effect on our relationships? No. The reality is far darker. Couples who have decided to separate and in normal circumstances would divorce and move out, now find themselves unable to afford the extra housing costs and are forced to remain living together.

On the basis of enormous household debt and growing unemployment, repossessions could double this year, reaching 82,000. During the Great Depression of the 1930s in the US, women played a major role in direct action campaigns against evictions, often organising to get families back into their homes. Campaigning for massive investment into quality council housing must be part of the resistance to the consequences of this recession.

Women make up the majority of the seven million carers in Britain. Harriet Harman, Minister for Women and Equality, made a big ’hoo-ha’ last year about introducing carers’ right to request flexible working hours from April 2009. The small print revealed the bosses’ right to deny flexibility – if it was bad for business. In a signal to the bosses that he was looking out for them, Peter Mandelson indicated that such measures might be difficult to carry through when pressure on business was mounting. What about pressure on women?

The Financial Times reports that about 10,000 jobs have been axed by local councils in England, with 70% expecting further losses due to the recession. As a majority of the low-paid council workforce are women, this will have a huge impact on women’s employment.

Cuts in public services mean further suffering for women in particular. Traditionally class societies have defined a women’s role as secondary, working within the family home – doing the housework and bringing up the next generation – unpaid. Such ideas may be promoted as women are called on to take up the slack of inadequate caring, childcare and health services. A revival of these reactionary ideas will have consequences for women’s rights. However, such attacks will not go unanswered.

We will see a mushrooming of campaigns in defence of services, such as that against local government cuts in the Wirral, NW England. These must be linked on a national basis, such as the recent campaign to defend the NHS, which will also have to be revived in the face of increased attacks.

While huge anger is directed at the likes of Sir Fred Godwin and other fat cat bankers, New Labour ministers will not escape the blame for this crisis. In the absence of a new mass workers’ party it is likely that the Tories could form the next government. Recent votes on abortion rights indicate that they would be likely to attack women’s right to choose when and whether to have children. Socialists call for a trade union-led demonstration to launch a powerful campaign to defend and extend abortion rights.

Women have been to the fore in a number of struggles that have taken place in response to the economic downturn. 120,000 public sector workers marched through the streets of Dublin recently, including huge numbers of women who have never been involved in struggle before. Thousands of young women, many demonstrating for the first time, marched through London against the slaughter in Gaza in January of this year. This is only a taster of the future struggles we will participate in.

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