International Women's Day: Why We Strike

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Photo credit: Women's Strike Assembly

On Sunday 8th of March, to mark International Women's Day, women across the world will go on strike from both paid and unpaid labour. Helen Charman spoke to Camille Barbagallo, an organiser from the UK Women's Strike Assembly about the call for this 'impossible, necessary' action. The women at Verso Books will also be joining the strike this year.

HC: The Women’s Strike takes place on International Women’s Day, which is increasingly whitewashed and commodified year on year: to what extent is the driving force behind the strike the need to repudiate the monopoly held by white, corporate feminism?

CB: The Women's Strike is certainly about reconnecting with the radical and militant history of IWD, which was forged through a series of strikes, walkouts and rebellions. However, since the beginning of this current tidal wave of feminist strikes, the capture of feminism by neoliberal logics and, as you say, commodification is being contested more and more. What we are living through is an international feminist movement that is overwhelmingly anti-capitalist and one that is not focused solely on women's waged employment, but instead takes aim at all of women's work and labour, both paid and unpaid. This shift away from the mainstream feminist focus on getting more and more women into the labour market as the way to achieve gender equality is really significant. Because when we bring the question of reproduction into the feminist conversation – specifically all the work that women do, the three Cs, so to speak: cooking, cleaning and caring – then a whole array of connections and also tensions and conflicts emerge. And it is those tensions that point us towards thinking about how class, migration and race come to construct womanhood just as much as gender. For an international feminist movement that is organising from below, that point is crucial.

We have also seen a shift in where the movement's engine is, it’s now overwhelmingly Latin American, in terms of theory and also practice. The rest of us are just playing catch up really.

HC: Is there a sense in which part of the point of the international focus of the Women's Strike is to try and formalise a way of communicating what's happening in the movement in Latin America and elsewhere outside the global north – a way of expanding the margins of the conversation?

CB: I think the insistence on the necessity for an international movement is about recentring the politics of internationalism [for feminism]. However, this needs to be developed through a politics of translation, by which I mean political translation. When we think about the politics of translation with regards to feminist struggles and political movements internationalist issues return: how would feminist politics from “over there” look and feel “over here”? Why do things happen differently in different places? Why do certain things seem possible and others not? How is politics to be translated, so to speak? The question is relevant when we think about political tactics and also slogans. For instance, what does a feminist strike look like and what does it mean in Spain, in Chile, in Palestine, in Rojava, in Antwerp? Are there ‘Marx bros’ in every city banging the table about it not being a real strike? We doubt they get lost in translation. There are many of us all around the world who have been convinced of the need to rebuild feminism from the bottom up, to, as you say, reject and name what is being done in the name of feminism. The feminist strike, with its focus on two fundamental aspects of women's oppression and exploitation – gendered violence (rape, domestic violence and also the killing of women) and women's work (both paid and unpaid) – provides the intellectual and political organising space to connect those two elements and also to return our struggles to the streets and out of the framework of lobbying or of policy or of being ‘smart business women getting ahead’. What is more, in the case of Argentina and Britain, we are talking about two countries that have both been neoliberal laboratories. So we have so much to learn from our sisters in Ni Una Menos in terms of what it means to reconstruct political subjectivities against debt, against structural adjustment. It is important, I think, for the British left to start to understand and contextualise what has happened in the last ten years as a process of structural adjustment – we just called it austerity. And it is not enough for feminist organisations and mainstream women's groups to list all the way austerity is "bad for women" – it is feminists that need to be leading the struggles against these processes.

HC: So the ‘impossibility’ of a strike that deviates from the model of a ‘traditional’ strike in its inclusion of unpaid labour, and the work of social reproduction that goes unrecognised as work, is also about asserting the impossibility of a protest that functions within, or aspires to assimilate to, the current system?

CB: Yes – the impossibility of the feminist strike is about bringing our feminist rage and action to a sphere or terrain of life that is never considered "real work" or as having political leverage. It is a provocation to demand collective solutions to individual problems and crucially to defy the current "solution" to the question of housework, which is just to contact it out to someone else to do it – overwhelmingly migrant women. The strike is also a provocation to women, it asks: how is it that we can’t strike? What needs to change to be able to strike? Who needs to be left holding the baby, so to speak? It is also about breaking current modes of protest as you say, and about pushing to redefine what gets counted as resistance and also what is of importance.

HC: So, as women’s experiences of precarity – especially under austerity as you say – hugely affect their ability to mobilise, are the visible aspect of the strike (the rallies, the marches) a way of enacting solidarity? Is that how we acknowledge that the strike takes place on behalf of others who can’t directly participate in the action?

CB: Yes and no. In Britain we have really focused on this question of the impossibility – it has driven our organising for three years now. Last year, we organised specific strike events for mothers and parents called My Mum Is On Strike. These events offered mothers a space to come to do politics on the 8th [March] – to chat, to plot to plan – with men stepping up to do childcare and cook meals that women could take away so they didn’t have to cook that evening when they got home. There were five of those events across the capital last year and over 500 mothers and their kids attended. That organising practice has returned this year with events called We Strike Because We Care; we have increased our attention to the question of food distribution in part because of the fucking outrageous and horrifying effects of universal credit and austerity, and how many families are now relying on food banks.

So members of the women's strike have, in the last year, been at the centre of establishing Cooperation Town Community Food Larders to break with the fucked up logics of charity and "helping the poor" that food banks reinscribe. At the same time, two years ago we started to deepen our thinking about the Sex / Work Strike and Women's Strike Assembly funded and launched two strategies: the unionisation of sex workers and a political campaign for decriminalisation. In that way the impossibility of the strike is met with everyday forms of organising and resistance that extend well beyond the 8th March. From these experiences we are about to establish a Fight For Childcare, with both a political campaign for free universal childcare, and the unionisation of childcare workers across the sector. It is with these projects and initiatives and deep organising practices that we can start to confront the impossibility of the strike.

HC: Right – and a fight for unionisation also functions, perhaps, as a way of rebuffing the exclusivity of the ‘Marx bro’ definition of strike action by illustrating how many workers are currently unrepresented by unions, and how much harder we have to fight under this government to even keep our current, extremely curtailed, ability to strike alive.

CB: Yes totally. There’s also the need to make unionisation a feminist concern. Because the traditional trade union movement – despite union membership being dominated by women and people of colour – continues outwardly to be a domain of white men. And unions haven't prioritised or thought about organising the service industries in which women are the majority of workers. And the feminist strike is about making clear that for us to win industrially we have to understand the complex world of work – some of which is paid and a lot of which is not. Both these elements of labour are necessary to engage, to be able to win industrially. Anti-trade unions laws will stay in place until we defy them. New Labour had the chance to get rid of them and Blair didn’t, in part that is on us as a movement – change isn’t going to be handed to us – we have to take it. At the same time the feminist strike is a necessary intervention into the strategy of the general strike: who would be on the streets for a general strike? Who would be able to participate if we haven't already thought about and reorganised social reproduction? I also want to link back to the question of violence against women, because as the global explosion of #metoo stories and experiences  showed so painfully, sexual and gendered violence is at the heart of women's labour exploitation.

Just as the current organisation of reproduction – the nuclear family, marriage, monogamy –are all part of the story of sexual and domestic violence. The feminist strike is about an insistence on bringing to the foreground the structural and systemicways that women are produced as vulnerable to violence. So we see moments of translation and the migration of analysis from Latin America, for example with the viral performance of ‘A Rapist in Your Path’ from the Chilean feminist movement, which we performed in London outside Buckingham Palace and changed the "President" to Prince Andrew.

HC: It seems like the Sex / Work Strike is central to this as well, in troubling the definitional boundaries imposed on labour versus leisure, on the idea of a distinction between 'work' and 'life’.

CB: Definitely! As a strike against the bedroom – regardless of whether we are paid directly for sex or not. That provocation is perhaps one of the most powerful. What happens when women start to form alliances across and against sex as work and how to chart a path forward that takes us out of the current clusterfuck that is the feminist debate on prostitution? A path that does not ask women who are not sex workers to just be morally in solidarity with sex workers because they pity them, or feel like they have the rough end of the deal – but one that says our conditions of sex are deeply and historically linked and that all women have a lot to gain from the decriminalisation of sex work and of the unionisation of the industry.

It is also important to trouble this hard distinction between who is a sex worker and who is not, to ask women to think about what they exchange for sex, how the commodification of sex is so embedded in the logics of capitalism, and also how marriage and sex work maybe don't look that different if you can bring yourself out of the moral abolitionist framework. And in addition, the sheer joy of having thousands of cis and trans women on the streets shutting down Soho in the name of dignity and labour rights for sex workers is just such a needed and important moment.

HC: Does the fact that the strike is taking place on a Sunday occupy a productive space of contradiction then? Both the traditional notion of Sunday as a day outside of the structures of weekly labour (as fought for by unions), which emphasises the unpaid work of social reproduction, and the fact that for many workers, particularly those in service and retail work, or sex work, or university teachers who are currently on strike over workloads, Sunday doesn't mean a day free of work at all.

CB: The fact that the day changes each year has really produced different tempos and brought different aspects and elements to the foreground of every strike. This year the Sunday element meant that we definitely have recommitted to the need to think of social reproduction as the spine of the strike. We have also taken up the Spanish and Latin American demand of a consumption strike – we are intending on taking over central London with a stationary protest that will have at the centre a mass clothes swap which is intended to encourage us to think through the historical role of the textile industry in capitalist development, to think through how consumption happens “here'” and production “over there” (overwhelmingly in the global south), to reject the middle class feminist solution to the exploitive fashion industry by buying ethical and expensive clothes, to model a genuine alternative of how life can be organised and to bring our actions into the sphere of ecological justice and climate change. And to be honest and humble about the role that women overwhelmingly play in consumption, but without the shaming and consumerist framework that current environmental campaigns have.

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Helen Charman is a writer and academic based in Glasgow. Her research focusses on the literary intersections of maternity, capitalism and psychoanalysis, and she teaches at Camberwell College of Arts and the University of Cambridge. She is currently Commissioning Editor of MAP magazine. 

Camille Barbagallo is an organiser with the Women’s Strike Assembly. When she’s not on strike, she works at the Centre for Employment Relations, Innovation and Change, University of Leeds. Her research focuses on gender, reproductive labour and women's work. Her current project, Unionising Reproductive Workers makes use of participatory action research methods with workers in the care sector and sex industry. She has previously worked as a trade union organiser. She is the editor of Women and the Subversion of the Community: A Mariarosa Dalla Costa Reader, PM Press 2018 and Commoning: with George Caffentzis and Silvia Federici, Pluto Press 2019.