Women’s liberation should embrace striking
Rory O’Neill argues that feminist movements should strike to achieve social change
Over one hundred years ago, one of history’s greatest revolutionary women, Rosa Luxemburg, wrote on the significance of the mass strike. Luxemburg’s attempt was among the first to examine, rigorously and in depth, the role of the strike in the struggle to transform society.
The strike, after all, is a long-standing pillar of labour activism. The power of the strike is drawn from the fundamental nature of the capitalist economy, wherein production and profit require the input of labour. In a capitalist society, the working class sells its ability to work in exchange for pay. Their most powerful weapon in fighting for better conditions and terms is their ability to withdraw that labour.
“The past twelve months have seen a dramatic resurgence of the use of strikes as weapons in the struggle against misogyny”
The past twelve months have seen a dramatic resurgence of the use of strikes as weapons in the struggle against misogyny and violence against women. This will be familiar to those of us here in Ireland, so soon after the Strike4Repeal protest on International Women’s Day last month. Strike4Repeal, however, was only the Irish manifestation of what is now a global trend in movements against women’s oppression.
The embattled Trump administration has been beset with calls for a mass, organised response to their president’s blatant sexism. The protest marches that marked International Women’s Day were accompanied by calls for women to strike on that day from both paid and unpaid labour. The calls came from a number of groups, including the “Day Without a Woman” organising committee and National Women’s Liberation (NWL).
In an interview featured in Jacobin magazine in January, NWL organiser Jenny Brown explained: “The strike idea came from our recognition that it’s women’s work, both paid and unpaid, that makes everything possible”.
“The strike is the most powerful tool that any movement possesses.”
The rejuvenation of the strike as a weapon of choice for women’s movements, however, did not begin with Trump’s victory. In June 2015, the #NiUnaMenos demonstrations in Argentina represented a remarkable mass uprising against femicide and violence against women. Some 300,000 people demonstrated in Buenos Aires in revulsion at the murder of a 14-yearold girl. Last October, following the horrific rape and murder of another young woman, the #NiUnaMenos movement called for women to go on strike.
Over fifty organisations joined the call to strike on “Black Wednesday”, October 19th. The best information suggests that thousands participated in the hour-long strike starting at 1pm, before 150,000 rallied in the capital later that evening. Furthermore, the “Black Wednesday” strike was itself inspired by events in Poland earlier that month. In defiance of a proposed total ban on abortion, thousands of women went on strike on the 3rd of October.
In fact, Poland followed a familiar pattern. In each case – the Polish Black Monday strike, #NiUnaMenos, Strike4Repeal and the women’s strike in the USA last month – it is hard to determine exactly the level of participation in the strike itself. Meanwhile, the solidarity protests that accompanied the strikes unsurprisingly appeared to be significantly larger in terms of participants.
It appears that the relative success of each action, such as it was, did not necessarily lie in the economic disruption resulting from the strike component of the protest. This is inevitable given the comparatively low level of strike action relative to the larger solidarity demonstration that accompanied each.
A powerful tool
“The ability to withdraw labour and disrupt the fundamental workings of the capitalist economy is the most direct challenge to the ruling elite of society”
Nonetheless, it is of great interest that more and more feminist movements are reaching for the strike as a method of resistance. It is, therefore, worth investigating the potential for the strike to become an increasingly important weapon in the arsenal of feminist movements in the future.
The strike is the most powerful tool that any movement possesses. The ability to withdraw labour and disrupt the fundamental workings of the capitalist economy is the most direct challenge to the ruling elite of society, who depend on workers’ labour to produce profit.
History shows how devastating the strike can be when wielded in full force by the women’s movement. In October 1974, 25,000 women demonstrated in the Icelandic capital of Reykjavik – an astonishing number in excess of 10% of the country’s total population. Crucially, however, the demonstration was accompanied by a mass strike that severely disrupted production for the day. An estimated 90% of Iceland’s women refused to work.
“It can be a helpful precursor to larger-scale mobilisations in the future.”
The Icelandic strike should serve as an inspiration for women’s movements, demonstrating the extent to which women can be mobilised in defiance of misogyny. It showcased their collective power to shut down society through the withdrawal of their labour. Such a strike could not be called in Ireland next week, nor could Strike4Repeal have achieved such results on a first outing.
If the women’s strikes of the past year can be seen as important steps forward in the organising of women against sexism, then Iceland 1974 should be taken as a model for the level of participation we should be working towards. The groundwork for such an action is already being laid, if only we agree to build on it.
This requires organic activist work, not just in the weeks and months immediately before an action, but day by day. It requires the construction of a framework of activist networks and alliances that can mobilise masses of people. Most of it all, it requires a clear strategic orientation towards forms of resistance that maximise our social power.
The re-introduction of the strike into the women’s movement, therefore, is an important step that is worth something in and of itself. It can be a helpful precursor to larger-scale mobilisations in the future. The relatively low level of strike participation in Ireland in March should not be taken as a failure. Rather, it should be seen as a building block in a powerful, class-conscious women’s movement, whose members are becoming more and more aware of their own power – not just as women, but as workers.
This is the essence of the strike’s power. The different ways in which we are exploited and oppressed must be expressed through particular forms of resistance. The strike wields the full social power of women and the working class.
“It provides the political basis on which different groups can unite, not just on one day for specific demands, but in common struggle against oppression.”
It can be used not only to challenge Ireland’s barbaric reproductive rights, but also to address the economic discrimination against women workers. Demands for equal pay and rights in the workplace can and should be supported as basic principles of the labour movement. Larger numbers of workers can, therefore, be mobilised in support of women.
The greater the level of solidarity expressed between different sections of the working class, the more powerful we are. This is not simply a rhetorical or ideological point. The strike directly reflects capitalism’s dependence on the working class for profit. The greater the level of unity and participation with which it is executed, the more severe a threat it poses to those who rule and govern society.
Yet aside from strike action itself, solidarity is the lifeblood of a mass movement. It provides the political basis on which different groups can unite, not just on one day for specific demands, but in common struggle against oppression. The women’s movement has fought a long battle, winning many victories along the way. The clearest path, however, to the repeal of our abortion laws, to economic justice, and to the turfing out of misogyny and sexism from our society, is unity and solidarity among working people. Ultimately, there is no social force more powerful than the working class united by a common goal.