by Wil Stracke, Assistant Secretary VTHC
As a union official and a feminist, rarely a week goes by when I don’t daydream about the women of Australia rising up in a large-scale strike; banners blazing bright, standing firm against the oppression we all confront (in very different ways) on a daily basis. Massive, economic disruption that is focussed squarely on revolutionary change. The kind of change that benefits all women. The kind of change that only happens with collective action.
A women’s strike would be a mighty thing.
Organising as part of the ASU’s equal pay campaign was an amazing experience. I’m not sure anything will top the exhilaration of being part of a campaign that achieved significant pay increases for workers in a sector dominated by women and undervalued as a result. It was also a slog. Building consensus around the claim, building agreement around actions, and inoculating workers against the threats from those in power that they would inevitably encounter. That’s the work of building collective power. The stuff that never ends up on the news – even when you win - and doesn’t end up as part of a cute montage either.
A women’s strike would require all that work, and then some.
Working at the ASU, I organised with low paid women workers in caring industries. Some of them who took the incredibly courageous decision to go on strike. And by strike I mean no pay, stand outside the gates and risk it all kind of strike. Not symbolic protest (as worthy as symbolic protest is – it’s a very different thing).
I’ve organised with workers for whom taking strike action resulted in a glorious victory. I’ve also organised with workers for whom the outcome was as far from glorious as you can possibly imagine. If you ask any Union women - and we should - we will tell you our stories of the hard yards of organising, the incredible amount of work that goes into our campaigns, our fights, our collective action to win. If you ask any Union women we will tell you about the amazing wins we've seen and we will also tell you about the times we didn't win, had to pick ourselves up, stick together and keep fighting.
The reality is that – for all our talk of unity – not everyone bears the burden of a strike in the same way. Migrant workers taking strike action might be risking their immigration status. Workers of colour know they are more likely to suffer violence from the state. Workers with a partner at home may be able to rely on someone to care for the kids – but disproportionately, women cannot. Workers with savings accounts probably don’t love dipping into it, but they’re in a different situation to workers who might miss rent or have to go without dinner so their kids get enough.
So a strike – a real strike – requires the consent of all of those workers who are putting it all on the line. That’s why it’s not union leaders that call a strike but rather the workers who, having reached the end of their tether, make the decision to withdraw their labour by sticking their hands in the air or ticking that box. Ironic, then, that so many feminists (with both economic and social power) calling for a revolution in gendered violence are missing the consent step in calling for a women’s strike.
Now, getting the trust and consent of the working class isn’t as easy as registering every sexual dalliance with an app designed by NSW police. But here’s how you could start:
The “March 4 Justice” marches were amazing. They came together off the back of a few tweets, some hard work from a handful of awesome feminists, and a genuinely broad discontent. And while we can absolutely bank on this government stuffing up again, this movement should be about more than responding to whatever makes the news.
You need to hold meetings (you could start by coming to these ones). Talk to co-workers. LISTEN to the perspectives of women with less political, economic or social power. Because, sure, society values women at the top who talk about injustice. But society will grind to a f*ckn halt without educators, cleaners, and supermarket workers.
In other words, a strike will be led by the working class or it will be bullshit.
2. Build a broad movement
Any union organiser will tell you - to succeed, strike action must be supported by enough people that you cause real disruption. That’s the fundamental difference between a strike and a symbolic protest. A strike is not about making a statement but rather about genuinely impacting on the ability of those in power to continue to operate their business as usual model. It’s not about appealing to power, it’s about exercising power. Without this, you fail.
In the case of a women’s strike – the kind that I’m talking about - that means lots and lots of women. And to get that kind of critical mass needs claims that will deliver real, tangible change to all of them. They must believe the risk is worth it.
3. Define success in a way that is meaningful for all
None of this “things need to change” stuff. No calling for abstract policies that leave the terms of delivery in the hands of those in power. And no calling for greater gender balance in oppressive structures.
If women are going to risk their livelihoods, we’re going to achieve something real. Things like free universal childcare, including a living wage for early childhood educators. Addressing the crisis of poverty and homelessness for older women. Fixing unequal pay. Action to stop black deaths in custody. Oh, and also these 55 things we already know will make safer and more respectful workplaces.
4. Consciously defend our most vulnerable sisters
A strike is not just an extension of a protest. In Australia, a strike would be illegal. That means participants face the risk of significant personal fines. And our courts have a demonstrated history of imposing these, even when we argue that workers have very good reasons for stopping work. Unions have been banging on about this for a long time - workers in Australia really have very little right to withdraw their labour. This is especially the case for those already pushed to the fringes, for whom the consequences can be terrifying.
So we need to talk about the very real risks that our sisters of colour and trans women will face. We need to be prepared both on the ground and online to avoid a situation where our mighty campaign against gendered violence ends up further victimising women already excluded and marginalised, or imposing fines on those who can least afford it.
5. Radical solidarity
There are going to be women with economic and social power demanding much of women with none. Women in secure jobs in big companies asking low paid women in insecure work to forego pay. In my experience, low paid women are more than willing to do the hard yards but rarely get that solidarity back.
I do not understand how some women can talk about the need to break the glass ceiling whilst simultaneously applauding cutting the penalty rates and outsourcing the jobs of low paid women workers. I guess it is based on trickle-down economics - the idea that if you give money to those at the top it will trickle down to those at the bottom. It's trickle-down equality.
Trouble is, trickle down economics has been proven a lie. And I reckon if you can’t see the link between the treatment that women get at the top and how we treat women with very little power, then I’m pretty sure you aren’t really a feminist. You’re more someone just seeking to negotiate the benefits of the patriarchy for yourself and your friends.
Radical solidarity would mean centering the demands of low paid women and other marginalised groups, and using whatever privilege you hold to lend support the cause of someone with less. And – beyond the strike – applying your freshly reinvigorated feminist lens to broader social and economic concerns.
I’m not saying it’s as simple as these five steps. But it’s what I’m starting with.
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