Women’s Work? Women’s strike!
A brief reflection on the N30 strike
One of the differences between the 30th November strike and most other industrial actions was the highly visible presence of women on the picket lines and in the marches. Trade unions are traditionally male-dominated and associated with heavy industry; say “strike” and people immediately think of coal mines, shipyards, steelworks, railways. The leaders of high-profile unions are nearly always male, even when, as with Unison, they represent a workforce which has a female majority.
65% of all public sector workers are female, so it was inevitable that they would be out in force last week – particularly as women, who are more likely to take career breaks or spend a few years working part-time to accommodate family commitments, are affected more severely by the plans to base pensions on a career average rather than final salary. Along with the unusual gender balance, it wasn’t the usual profile of occupations on strike this week. Even in this day and age, the types of paid work done by men and women are still divided along “traditional” gender lines. Most women take jobs in the categories known as the five Cs: caring, cleaning, working with children, clerical and cashiers’ jobs.
An Irish friend of mine likes to sum up the gender distribution of work as “women wipe the world’s arse”. Both literally and metaphorically, in paid and unpaid work, women (particularly poor women and women of colour) are often left to do the jobs that nobody else wants; low-status work that comes with pay and benefits that don’t reflect its importance.
However, the women who work in education or the caring professions are usually very aware of how important their work is – for many of them it’s a vocation – and this has often dissuaded them from taking industrial action in the past, because withdrawing their labour would harm people other than their bosses. For the most part, teachers, carers, nurses, and the people whose back-office efforts support these vital frontline services, aren’t militant revolutionaries, but now the threat to the people they work with is so much greater than the the effects of a one-day strike. And now that they’ve done it once, many feel empowered and are ready to do it again.
But just as the strike isn’t just about pensions, women’s struggles under the present government aren’t just about paid work: it’s also about benefits, public services, legal aid, protection from violence. In light of this, maybe it’s time escalate the action and call for a women’s general strike. We’ve seen what happened when certain public services were shut down for the day, so imagine the chaos it would cause if all of the women in the country went on strike indefinitely. No paid or unpaid work to be done until the government is ready to talk seriously about gender equality. We would bring the country to its knees in under 48 hours.