Advancing our Struggles -- Building for Feminist Strikes
Speech given by Keshet Zamir at ROSA International Socialist Feminist Conference, Vienna 18 & 19 March 2023
When we say, a feminist strike, there’s a few examples that come to mind. I used to imagine a strike like that in the ancient Greek play “Lysistrata”. The play starts when all the women in Greece meet and discuss how to stop their men from fighting the Peloponnesian war. They decide the best course of action is to refuse having sex with them until they cease fire. I don’t think this is the only example for what we call these days a “reproductive” strike. I also know that it is not what we as socialists mean when we bring forward the idea of a feminist strike.
Strikes come in many different forms. I believe most of us have experienced at least one strike that affected us in the past 10 years. It is not accidental, but a characteristic of the time we are in. As capitalism descends into a deeper crisis, the working class finds more and more ways to exert its power, and to try and protect itself. We are, these days, in the midst of a strike wave in France – bringing out over a million workers on the streets on the 8th of March. Just this week there was another half a million strong strike in Britain, for the second time just this year. We can see strike waves emerging in the Netherlands, Portugal, and Turkey. Important worker’s strikes in the US, Canada and greece. Mass social movements took up strikes against the government like in Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Chile, Israel/Palestine and more.
Many of these strikes were more “traditional” – workers' strikes, organised by the unions or by large numbers of workers in the same workplace, sector or region. A workers' strike we might call it - when workers come together to cease labour, halting profits for their bosses in order to pressure them for certain demands. Other strikes don’t have demands from the bosses, per se, but from the governments.
However, in the last 10 years we saw a rise of “feminist strikes”. Not the reproductive kind like I mentioned earlier, but that of labour – be it women’s labour, or the entire workforce’s labour. Especially in countries where the bureaucratic unions completely fail to organise the working class, and particularly women.Those strikes might look like a new idea to some of us – feminists adopting tactics from trade unions and workers for a larger political cause - but these kinds of strikes are actually a staple of the last 120 years or so. And I think we can learn important lessons if we look at past attempts at feminist strikes.
New York, 1909
One of the original inspirations for feminist strikes was the seamstresses strike in New York, November 1909. The seamstresses were striking for weeks, demanding higher wages, and better working conditions, but also fighting workplace harassments. What started as spontaneous walk outs in specific workplaces was answered with brutal oppression from the bosses, police, and courts. That has led the seamstresses to push their entire union – led by male shop stewards – to call a general strike of the sector. More than 20 thousand seamstresses went to the streets the next day, men and women. The striking workers organised rallies too, connecting their struggle with the suffragettes.
At the end the strike won a work week of 52 hours, more paid leave, bettered the position of unionised workers, and opened renegotiations on the wages. It wasn’t all the workers demanded, but it was major. This inspired the entire textile sector, becoming, after 5 years of struggle, the most unionised sector at the time. It was also a big breakthrough for women, finding their power inside the trade unions.
A famous feminist strike, commemorated in the movie “made in Dagenham” is the ford factory strike of 1968, in Dagenham, England. The strike was initiated after the bosses declared a reduction in the women’s wages, despite being one of the highest grossing factories in Britain. It lasted for three weeks. Other Ford factories across Britain joined in solidarity,and helped gaining the women workers 92% percent of their men colleagues’ wage. That was a big achievement in itself, but also was a main steppingstone in the equal pay law presented in England that year. There was a political victory: the Dagenham worker’s struggle started as a local movement for equal pay but became a general fight for equal pay across Britain.
These two were strikes of working women, taking action for higher wages and better working conditions. Only after taking action the struggle took up a feminist character, making demands for women in general.
But feminist strikes can also cross the different work sectors, like the women’s strike in Iceland in 1975. About 90% percent of women in Iceland stopped their work at noon that day. Women left their homes too, striking from their care work and chores. There was no phone connection because the phone workers were striking. Newspapers weren’t printed because the workers placing the letters in the machines were all women. Schools were shut down, flights were cancelled due to having no flight attendants and banks were closed because the clerks were all women. Hospitals were shutting down and the airport was closed. Effectively, all of Iceland came to a halt, because even the men’s jobs were dependent on their women colleagues. Many men had to take their children to work with them. The strike was a result of the work of the leftist organisation “red stockings”, mobilising for months for that day. It won Icelandic women the equal rights act, voted on a year later. One of the organisers became the first woman president in Iceland and in Europe in the following elections.
In 2016 a powerful movement in Poland managed to block a law proposed by the right wing government, attacking the right for abortion. It culminated in a day of strike, with 143 protests organised across Poland. The power of the movement was surprising even for the organisers, with around 50,000 protestors only in Warsaw, and 140,000 across the country. The government was dismissive of the movement at first, but the sheer size of the strike pushed them to come back from proposing the law.
Because of anti-democratic laws against strikes in Poland the spontaneous movement called for women to take a day off work. But many women obviously couldn’t afford to take a day off. Some women still arrived at work, but were wearing black, as an act of protest. Many women decided to strike anyway, and risked being sacked off. The day before the strike one of the three big union federations in Poland announced it will support striking women in case their bosses will use it against them. It enabled many to strike and go to the demonstrations, especially in the public sector. The union’s position also helped teachers to initiate protests with students and organise spontaneous walkouts from schools. Even after they won, pro-choice activists in Poland knew the fight wasn't over and organised a second strike. Indeed the Polish government tried to pass that law again several times in the following years, and only succeeded during Covid, still causing a heroic wave of protests across the country.
Striking against the system
Feminist strikes can take up issues that are bigger than just women’s rights. I cannot go into them, but just a few examples are the reproductive strike in Liberia in 2004 that managed to stop the Liberian civil war, or the US women’s strike against atomic experiments in 1961.
These inspiring strikes, organised by brave women, had important victories. And we need to learn from these victories. We also need to learn from their failures. What did they do that was effective? What were their strategies? How did they gain solidarity from men? These lessons are necessary for us in this period of another feminist wave of struggle.
The campaigns of MeToo, and other ones inspired by it exposed the level of violence women have to deal with everyday. Femicide is another constant reminder that our lives are under threat.
At the end of 2018 there was a movement towards a feminist strike in Israel. It started with spontaneous demonstrations protesting violence against women and femicide. With cases piling up, within a few weeks there were bigger protests organised, especially in Arab-Palestinian towns , showing the powerful potential for solidarity in the movement that brought Jewish and Arab women out together on the streets, a movement that was sparked as a result of the brutal widespread gender violence and femicides. Socialist feminists in this movement strongly linked the racist, violent brutality of the Israeli state and its war machine to gender violence, raising the need for the movement to oppose the occupation, and all violence — state and intimate partner violence, meted out to Palestinian women and girls most of all.
Following two murders on the day of struggle against violence against women, feminist activists launched a call for a “Women’s strike”. The main demand was that the government should allocate budgets into preventing violence against women. This feminist strike was organised only a few months after a similar “LGBTQ strike” took place in Israel, so the idea of that form of a strike was already popular. The organisers rightly approached the unions asking them to join. Whilst the biggest union wasn’t cooperative they also reached out to the bosses demanding that women could strike without repercussions. Understanding that not all women could strike like that, the organisers also suggested women take a 24 minute break, to symbolise the 24 women murdered that year.
Big companies were driven to support the strike, in order not to damage their reputations. Similarly a few municipalities declared they’ll support their workers striking. The Histadrut, the biggest union federation in Israel ended up supporting the strike. They announced they will back the workers of the federation itself striking. That did however lead to unions taking up the strike themselves, like the airport staff union, the social workers union and the teachers union. But differently from the strike in the Spanish state in the same year, where the unions actually launched a solidarity strike, in Israel it was only lip service. Five years passed and still the government hadn’t given the funds it promised. Both in Poland, and in Israel/Palestine, the movement suffered when the unions did not join the strike. It was a serious obstacle in pressuring the ruling class.
A big lesson to learn from that is that women’s strikes, or feminist strikes can gain big achievements. But those achievements aren’t enough when we don’t link the struggle with the struggle for a real alternative to the rotten system that tries to take us backwards. This link between the feminist struggle and the struggle for a socialist society was a big part of the Russian revolution.
Russia, 1917 -- Striking Women and Revolution
The revolution started with a women’s strike on international women’s day. Textile workers walked out of their factories in Petrograd and demanded an end to the cost of living crisis, food scarcity and the first world war. Tens of thousands of workers joined them. After five days of mass demos in the streets as well as a general strike, the tsarist regime collapsed. The revolution was completed eight months later, when the Bolshevik party gained support and turned into a mass party.
The first steps of the new Bolshevik government had to do with women’s rights: women got the right to vote, equal pay, the right to civil marriage and divorce, abortion rights - all things that women still have to fight for in society today. Programs for funding day care, cafeterias and communal laundries were put forward. The hard economical conditions, the civil war and the rise of stalinism led to many of these gains being taken back. And still, the revolution of 1917 is an example of how women’s struggles can lead to a societal change. Moreover, how a revolution in the political-economical-social system changes women’s conditions entirely.
Capitalism profits from exploiting women, profiting from their work, or from their position in society. Ultimately, it cannot solve the problems women deal with: poverty, economic dependency and exploitation. In fact, the system itself is based on violence against women, like when cuts are made to social services, education and healthcare, it depends on women doing that job unpaid at home. The systems that are, by large, believed to protect women like the justice system and the police were actually established to keep the existing social order and defend private property.
Strikes are our way as the working class to assert our power, show that it is actually us who run the system, as it is our work that makes the profits for the ruling class. It is also an important way for us to organise, have political discussions and gain confidence in the fight against the capitalist system. Striking as individuals, based on gender or political stands does have an important effect, but it doesn’t bring us together in the same way to build a longstanding movement that can have a real program and demand an end to all inequality, violence and oppression.