(The following was written in collaboration with comrades sympathetic and affiliated to the ICT)
For what was once International Working Women’s Day, before it became International Women’s Day upon being co-opted by the UN and its corporate sponsors, we have written on 8 struggles throughout history in which working women played a vital and influential role. Other articles detailing the history and significance of this date can be found on this website by CWO (Celebrating International Women’s Day 100 Years On) and ICO (The Origins and Capture of International Working Women’s Day).
1. The 1915 Rent Strike in Glasgow, Scotland
During the First World War, in May 1915, landlords in overcrowded Glasgow made the decision to increase rents. Tenants rightly saw this as profiteering (there was a law against that!) and refused to pay the increase but continued to give the “factor” (the landlords’ rent collector) the old rent. This was the start of the rent strike. The landlords responded by individual evictions via the Sheriff’s Court but were surprised by the collective response. Working class women formed tenants’ associations like the famous South Govan Women’s Housing Association, led by Helen Crawfurd, Mary Barbour, Agnes Dollan and Jessie Stephens, which eventually came to cover all of working class Glasgow (and were nicknamed “Mrs Barbour’s Army”).(1)
They organized local meetings and got more and more people to join the struggle, including militants from various groups and parties. Notices were printed in thousands “WE ARE NOT PAYING INCREASED RENT” and stuck in virtually every window. The solidarity these actions achieved was the secret of its success. In May only 15,000 households were involved but by November this figure had doubled. Their tactics were also copied in Dundee, Aberdeen, Leeds, Bradford, Edmonton, Barrow, Workington, Coventry and Birmingham.
After a summer of defeat the landlords then tried to use the “small debts” court to have rent taken directly from the wages of the workers. Eighteen of them, including “Mr Reid” secretary of the Tenants’ Defence Association, were brought before the Sheriff’s court on 17 November 1915. It produced one of the largest demonstrations in Glasgow’s stirring working class history. Tens of thousands of men and women gathered to protest outside the Sheriff’s Court.
But this was not just a matter of a single demo. Fifteen of the people charged were shipyard workers and this encouraged workers’ solidarity. Wildcat strikes erupted at the Fairfield (Govan) and Beardmore (Dalmuir) shipyards. The Sheriff was warned that any prosecutions would be met by a mass strike on the whole of the Clyde. It was no empty threat. A month earlier mass strikes had already forced the Government to release three of the unofficial shop stewards from the Clyde Workers’ Committee who had been imprisoned for resisting the “Munitions Act”. Suddenly the rules of the bosses’ legal system were thrown out of the window. As the protest grew, the Sheriff adjourned the proceedings whilst he phoned Lloyd George — who told him to give in as a new rent restriction law was about to be passed. He then told the Court that though he was bound to “uphold the law”, “due to the seriousness of the situation” he considered it unwise for the trial to proceed. The factor was persuaded to withdraw the charge to much cheering in and out of the courtroom.
The strength of class solidarity turned this into more than a local victory over unfair rents. However, the wider context should not be forgotten. The bosses had a war on their hands and their first aim was to keep the supply of arms flowing. Bosses of munitions factories in Woolwich and Birmingham had already warned that the housing issue would lead to more strikes and wider unrest so had petitioned the Government to cap rents. The Glasgow rent strike was the proof of their worries. It led to the immediate implementation of the “1915 Rent Restriction Act” which benefited tenants across the country. This battle ended in victory (but not better housing). Its methods remain an inspiration and just one of many fantastic examples of how working women fighting back against the bosses and the landlords can spur class wide action and solidarity. As John Maclean wrote at the time “the rent strike is the first step towards the political strike”. Over a century later capitalism still exists and the class war on the homes front goes on…
2. The 1917 February Revolution in Russia
International Women’s Day in 1917 was a historic day for the working class, as tens of thousands of working women, primarily from textile mills and factories, led a five-day series of strikes and demonstrations in Petrograd, demanding an end to the Tsarist regime. 1,300 people died, but the workers prevailed as the strikes turned into an armed insurrection.
Working women played a pivotal role in the February Revolution, outright rejecting the Russian middle class feminists’ women’s suffrage campaign to secure votes for the Provisional Government, to instead fight alongside their male counterparts on the basis of shared class interests. In fact, the women workers had initiated the strike against the advice of every political organization who had believed it was too early to mobilize a fully revolutionary movement. They had wanted to limit the action to an anti-war demonstration, expecting a defeat, but Bolshevik women decided to organize within their own circles that had developed out of these socialist organizations. The Working Women’s Mutual Assistance Association had close ties among textile workers and sought to “organize and [spread] propaganda among the female factory proletariat.”
Conditions for working women were exacerbated by the war, as the mandatory conscription for men had driven 250,000 more women into the Petrograd workforce, totaling to about a million women workers. Most women had to divide their time between working long hours in the war industries and taking care of their children; in their free time, they waited in long lines for bread and kerosene. Food shortages, especially the dearth in the supply of bread, was a huge motivating factor for the calls to strike; for women workers, the final straw was at the beginning of February, when only half the food ordered for Petrograd had arrived. Days before International Women’s Day, bread riots had broken out, in which bakeries had been robbed and property destroyed, but what transformed the riots into something with a stronger organizational direction were the mass meetings that the women workers held, urging both male and female workers to leave their workplaces to take part in the demonstrations. Between 80,000 to 120,000 workers took part in the strike — the majority being working women — demanding bread, peace, and the end of Tsarist rule. In the days that followed, women played a major role in convincing the Cossacks to come over to the side of revolution, telling them about the lack of bread supply and working men at the Front, essentially shaming the troops about their role in the war contributing to the deteriorating conditions for the Russian working class.
It was not until the October Revolution that any real progress would be made for working women; it not only recognized proletarian women as having the same political and workplace rights as men, but it also legalized (and eased the process of) divorce, maternity leave, childcare, and job security during pregnancy. Although these advances were temporary and would be reversed soon after Stalin came to power, the February Revolution still marked a pivotal point in history for working class women. The lessons we learn from both their achievements and their errors are crucial to us as militants, as we strive to build links within the class and work towards building the revolutionary party of the future — one that is necessary for international proletarian revolution, and for the liberation of women and all of humanity.(2)
3. Women Peasants and Workers during the First World War in Italy
During WW1 in Italy, just as it happened in other warring countries, women workers were thrown to the forefront of social life in a major capitalist power while working men were drafted into the army and forced to leave their homes and their wage work to join the imperialist slaughter as cattle. Women workers, as well as women peasants which found themselves in a similar predicament, formed in the eyes of the bourgeoisie and of its State a key part of the so called home front and were thus supposed to keep the economy going and to boost the soldiers’ morale to back the war effort in an act of “patriotic” courage. One can not help but to notice some parallels with news coverage of the current Covid emergency in recalling how at the time the media and the State machinery drummed up support for the imperialist war and purposefully erased class differences: in both cases we are sold the illusion that “we are all in this together” and that the working class and the exploited in general must accept sacrifices for the good of the nation. Fortunately for us internationalist communists drawing upon the lessons of the past, women workers and peasants fought back and also showed us how working class revolution is a prerequisite for women’s emancipation. Indeed women workers and peasants took part in and propelled some major struggles in the run-up to the end of WW1 in Italy, to the point that even mainstream historiography could not ignore their participation and often even their leading role in the working class struggles and “popular” struggles.
Strikes, rallies and acts of sabotage against the war involving women workers, agricultural workers and peasants went on throughout the whole war period and during Italy’s brief period of neutrality but the climax was reached in Turin when, in August 1917, women workers trying to buy bread found out that the grocery stores were empty and attacked the vans carrying the store owners’ groceries by solidarizing with other workers and much of the rest of the population living in the poorer neighbourhoods of the city. The mass insurrection led to a standoff between the workers, other insurgents and the armed forces which brutally repressed the insurrection causing several dozens of deaths and lasting damage as many workers and participants were wounded, incarcerated or drafted into the army. Tragically the working class in Italy did not have a revolutionary communist party, which could have channelled the combativeness and revolutionary aspirations of a large part of the working class, until early 1921, when the revolutionary wave following the October Revolution was on the retreat both in Italy and worldwide. Still, episodes like the Turin insurrection show how women workers took a significant role in working class struggles against the bourgeoisie and its State as members of the working class and not as women in itself, though during the war their gender placed an additional burden on them that perhaps turned them more easily against the bourgeoisie and its State among the hardships they were facing while having to provide for their families and having to suffer lower wages when compared to men alongside militarized work discipline in zones of Northern Italy that were overrun by former Triple Alliance armies.
Similarly, women agricultural workers and peasants also led strikes and protests against the government during World War I, often in a cooperative effort with industrial women workers, not because they were women or even peasants but because of the material conditions they experienced during the war as part of the working class or of the small peasantry. Women workers and peasants drove these struggles forward as they came to understand that the State represented the bourgeoisie and that the imperialist war was waged to further the interests of the ruling class: this stood in stark contrast with the activities of feminist militants whose efforts were instead aimed at supporting the war and/or at gaining the right to vote as a compensation for their charitable work during the war. Many feminists and their organizations active in Italy even sought to court the fascists’ favour with the latter’s rise to power and the fascists seemed to initially repay their support by approving a law which granted limited voting rights to some categories of bourgeois women in local elections in 1925, only for these “gains” to be made moot by fascism’s abolition of local elections the following year. Nothing like the historical experiences we summed up could better illustrate the need for a revolutionary communist party rooted in the working class and the illusory nature of feminism’s belief in the elimination or amelioration of women’s oppression at the hands of the capitalist state under the capitalist mode of production.
4. The 1919 Winnipeg General Strike in Canada
While the Seattle General Strike in February of 1919 lasted only 6 days, the one that took place several months later and some 2,300 kilometers to its east in Winnipeg, Manitoba lasted for 6 weeks and was the largest strike movement in Canadian history. The First World War was met with a rise in the cost of living, poor housing conditions, and increasing unemployment, with returning soldiers finding very few jobs. When building and metal workers tried to negotiate contracts with the employers, they were rejected and so was any attempt at collective bargaining. On 15 May 1919, most of Winnipeg’s workforce, over 30,000 workers, walked off of the job. Working women played a vital role in the strike and as members of its committee. It was 500 non-unionized women telephone operators who were first out on the streets that morning. Other workers from both the public and private sectors, and the metal and building workers, followed closely on their heels. Only a third of strikers were part of a union.
Local businessmen and professionals produced an anti-strike newspaper called The Winnipeg Citizen and government ministers threatened to sack striking postal workers. The “Immigration Act” was amended to give the state the power to deport any worker not born in Canada for “seditious activities” and on 5 June the mayor banned public demonstrations. All of this was met with the class solidarity of workers in other major cities. This was especially the case in Alberta where over 3,500 workers from Edmonton and Calgary struck from 15 May until 15 June. Workers in Lethbridge and Medicine Hat also voted to strike, but this move was obstructed by union leaders. On 21 June returned soldiers in Winnipeg called a demonstration to protest against the arrest of strike leaders there and another in Calgary. The police attacked the crowd with clubs and then fired shots, killing two strikers, while wounding and arresting many more. This violence broke the confidence of the strike leaders and work resumed on 26 June, however, to this day the strike remains a significant event in both Canadian and global working class history.
5. The 1929 Women’s March in Port Adelaide, Australia
With the emergence of the Great Depression came the most violent strikes and riots in South Australian history. Included in these was 18 January 1929 when around 800 working women — mostly wives of striking wharf workers (wharfies) and unemployed workers — and their children marched to Port Adelaide in support of their husbands and fathers — while calling on working men to join them. Upon attempting to confront the strikebreakers, mounted police attacked the crowd. They beat the women and children, who fought back with stones, bottles and pieces of wood.
This event was in response to a bloody battle between cops and strikers that had broken out the day before and a part of workers’ organized struggles that had been boiling over for several months. The first strike and protest actions took place on 28 September 1928, when around 5,000 workers overran Port Adelaide wharves, they boarded ships and injured and intimidated strikebreakers. This was due to decisions by the federal government which had overturned improved pay and working conditions for wharfies (who were now working 16 to 48 hour shifts with decreased break times). Union leaders had quickly attempted to smother these actions, but workers continued fighting for three years.
6. The 1937 Cigar Makers Strike in Detroit, United States
Between September 1936 and June 1937, hundreds of thousands of workers engaged in hundreds of sit-downs. Strike activity broke out in a wide range of settings. In auto and electrical manufacturing women were a minority of workers. They were a majority in cigar, shoe and clothing manufacturing. While retail, hospitality and hospitals had more of an equal number of workers from different genders. The greatest participation and organisation of strikes led by women mainly took place in large cities such as Detroit and Chicago, but also popped up in many smaller urban areas. In six cigar factories occupying a four square mile area in Detroit worked some 4,000 women, mainly Polish-speaking migrants. The women were not only the lowest paid in Detroit and had received a recent pay cut, but they also were experiencing deplorable conditions, such as: poor ventilation and toxic tobacco dust frequently in the air, broken and dirty toilets, no hot water or soap, and sexual harassment from the foremen.(3)
The working women were inspired by the auto plant sit-down strikes in Flint and Detroit. On 16 February workers at the Websten-Eisenlohr cigar factory sat down and stopped production. Strike organizers put a notice on the bulletin board telling the women to stay in after having asked management for a 10 percent raise and receiving no response. The American Federation of Labor ignored the women’s numerous pleas for help. Workers’ delegates then made the mistake of believing they still needed union backing and insisted that Stanley Nowak, a Polish speaking United Auto Workers organizer and soon to be senator who the workers knew from the radio and his political activities, lead their strike instead. Within hours of meeting with Nowak and him agreeing to help, the women had formed committees responsible for drawing up demands, establishing a strike headquarters, and providing food, bedding and child care. Within a matter of days workers at Mazer-Cressman, Essex Cigar, Bernard Schwartz, Tegge-Jackson and General Cigar — the other 5 cigar companies — were also occupied.
On 19 February, the strikers held a mass meeting, which resulted in a large march that passed by all 6 factories. The men of the family found themselves taking on the tasks that usually fall on women during strike actions, they cooked, cleaned and took care of the children, they won over hostile spouses and they maintained outside support for the strike. On 4 March the Mazer-Cressman management agreed to the women’s demands and Essex also settled the next day. On 20 March, four plants remained occupied and Detroit’s mayor Frank Couzens ordered a vicious crackdown that saw cops brutalizing workers at Bernard Schwartz, along with sympathetic bystanders. After another month of striking, meetings, and rallies involving tens of thousands of people opposed to the brutality and in support of the workers, on 22 April management at the remaining companies caved and agreed to the workers demands. The end of the strike was announced the next day and several weeks later the Cigar Workers’ Union Local 24 was created.(4) This event is a prime example of workers winning their demands in spite of having sought out union backing, not because of it. The initial organisation and committees that the workers formed could have just as easily become the working class vessels we need to see us through the revolutionary transformation of society.
7. The 1968 Equal Pay Strike at Ford Motors in Dagenham, England
The post-war economic boom came to an end in the 1960s, this was met with a rise in contentiousness among the workers, and the UK was no exception. In September 1967, Ford, in cooperation with the unions, introduced a new wage structure: skilled, semi-skilled, and unskilled. All 187 women sewing machinists, responsible for making car seat covers for the majority of cars manufactured at the Dagenham factory, were deemed “unskilled” workers. Working women were now paid much less than their male counterparts. The 54,813 men, who were performing the same or similar jobs, and even teenage boys who had been hired to sweep the floors of the plant, were receiving a higher wage. Upon this discovery, the women were enraged and five of them, Rose Boland, Eileen Pullen, Vera Sime, Gwen Davis, and Sheila Douglass, began to organize a strike to demand equal pay for equal work.(5)
On 7 June 1968, all 187 women laid down their tools. Rapidly, the effects of the strike were seen, as car production ceased within the first week. The factory was forced to come to a complete standstill, costing the company millions and leaving 40,000 jobs across the nation at risk. A further 195 women at a separate Ford factory walked off the job in solidarity. While some of the workers’ husbands who worked in the factories gave their support, others spoke out in opposition — a move largely influenced by the unions and their framing of this as a women’s issue rather than a class issue. Despite this, Ford refused to negotiate with the workers, and advised their managing director, Sir William Batty, to “do his worst” to the strikers. The women promised not to cease action until they received equal pay. On 29 June 1968, a meeting between Barbara Castle, Secretary of State for Trade and Industry for the Labour Government, and the strike leaders resulted in an agreement that the women would return to work if their wages were raised to 92% of what the men were paid. Many women were unhappy that their exact demands were not met, but returned to work anyway. The working women at Ford did not receive 100% of what male machinists were paid until 1984, 16 years after they struck. To this day, however, women in the UK continue to earn around 17% less than men on average, while the entire working class remains enslaved by the capitalist mode of production.(6)
8. The 2019 Garment Workers’ Wildcat Strikes in Dhaka, Bangladesh
Bangladesh’s garment industry has a rich history of class struggle, and the mass walkouts and wildcat strikes in January 2019 are the best and most recent examples of working class self-organization unbridled by the union form. After five years, the garment industry’s proposed minimum wage structure was set to change, but the protests that followed the initial announcement in September 2018 were followed by factory walkouts and road blockades in December, with workers taking to the streets, vocalizing their rejection of the new proposal. Tens of thousands of garment workers, unsatisfied with their measly pay raise, continued to strike in January, demanding higher wages and better working conditions, despite heavy police repression, including charges of tear gas and rubber bullets at the striking workers.
Women make up a majority of workers in Bangladesh’s garment industry, comprising 85% of the workforce in the sector (at the time of the January 2019 strike, the percentage was around 60% due to factory regulation changes that forced many women out of employment). These working women played an important role in the garment strikes, as they were often at the forefront of the demonstrations, consistently for the past decade. After the 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse, legal reforms and safety regulations had been passed after pressure from Western labor institutions and international buyers, but the changes were superficial at best; most factories themselves failed to enact these regulations, as it was not enforced by the state, allowing bosses to do whatever best served their interests. This meant that although full trade union rights were granted to workers, due to the police and factory owners’ attempts to brutalize, beat and blacklist workers who attempted to organize in the workplace, the legal recognition process for registering new unions was impeded. So the small unions that did exist had a small membership and little influence over the workers’ struggle or daily existence, instead playing part in formal negotiation with the bosses and the state. The self-organization of the workers being unconstrained by the unions was demonstrated by the striking workers’ refusal to return to work despite repeated calls by union leaders. The union leaders assigned to handle the situation, admitted that the workers would not listen to them; the workers themselves openly stated that they did not trust the top leadership, with some workers even likening the union leaders to promoters of the factory owners’ interests. The garment workers continued to agitate, refusing to follow the directions of the union leaders who had negotiated with the government and factory owners about the changes in Dhaka’s minimum wage structure on “behalf” of the workers.(7)
The wave of wildcat strikes even in the face of police brutality and blacklisting, shows the strength of the workers and their willingness to fight for the interests of the class, especially when they are free of union influence. The garment workers’ struggle is shown in clear juxtaposition to the reformist attitudes of the unions, who only sought to mediate the sale of labor between the workers and the bosses, offering concessions to the workers only to bring an end to the strikes and factory shutdowns. Trade unions have historically hindered class struggle, and the events of January 2019 are a clear demonstration of just the beginning of what can happen if workers are able to organize themselves outside of a union framework.
From this history it is clear that at any time the working class has fought back against the attacks and miseries of capitalism, women workers have not only just been present at these struggles, but they have often been on the front lines, either providing support for their striking husbands and sons or acting as the primary striking force itself. We can then safely conclude that any attempt to either drive out the history of working class struggle from 8 March, or to minimize the role of working women in the wider struggle of our class, has no real basis in history or facts. This is all too visible today. Right now we are living in a capitalist crisis of epic proportions, where the world working class is seeing cuts in its standards of living deeper than ever in the last fifty years. Over the past few years, although still sleeping, workers have slowly been stirring from this slumber and wherever this stirring occurs, working women are there and often at the forefront. Whether in the wildcat strikes of exhausted, overworked, and underpaid nurses and doctors, the strikes of teachers against poor conditions and now unsafe school reopenings, or the militancy of workers at the Amazon plant in Bessemer, Alabama, working women are taking a leading role in the struggle.
Ultimately, the lesson here is that the only struggle worth fighting is the class struggle. That is, women have more in common with their male working class counterparts than with female CEOs or those in charge of imperialist states and armies. There is no commonality of interest between the woman in charge of the factory and the women carrying out mind-numbing and alienating labor for just enough pay to get by. They are mutually opposed to each other, and each of them has more in common with the rest of their class. To this day working women even in the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, and many of the other traditional metropoles of capitalism still earn less than working men. What is needed isn’t just to demand an equalization of the wages doled out to them. What is truly necessary is for the workers of all genders to realize that their common interests lie not in the attempt to equalize oppression and exploitation, but in the end of it altogether. This means the abolition of the wage system, or in other words, the abolition of capitalism. This is only possible when the world working class of every background and ‘identity’ forge solidarity amongst the class and organize for this future. The working class needs to build its own independent organs of struggle and commit to building an international political organization which can serve as a tool in their hands towards the liberated future. Only when this is accomplished, when capitalism is overthrown and we transition to a communist world free of sexist violence and oppression along with so much else, can we really speak of the liberation of women.
Affiliates and Sympathisers of the ICT
Monday, 8 March 2021
This article is also available on Leftcom.org