Was the International Women’s Day Strike Classist?

Int'l.Women's.Day.Strike.2017What did you do for International Women’s Day? Did you strike?

Well, I’m currently unemployed, and my partner has been supporting us while I’ve been more-or-less taking care of our home. We had a conversation in the morning about the kind of day-to-day work I do around the house, how a lot of it is unbalanced background work that goes largely unnoticed if you’re not the one doing it (like making sure there’s a back-up toilet paper and that the stove gets wiped down every day, for instance), and how he could take some of it on in the future. He committed to doing so, and I felt great. Strike achieved.

But then I got on Facebook where I read that striking was classist!! I was floored. I used to organize with a service worker’s union, supporting workers that wanted to bring the union to their workplaces. I worked in a cafeteria, and I organized with other people that worked in cafeterias and hotels. I myself have not been on strike but I’ve seen workers and organizers from other shops consider and organize and execute strikes. And damn, is it serious. Asking people to stop working and go to battle with their employer is serious. Strikes are supposed to be acts of solidarity – a mass direct action where the individual becomes part of a larger, more powerful whole. Because capitalism is ruthless, and under it we are all expendable as individuals.

Many Different Angles

So, why were women writing think pieces decrying the strike as classist? My first instincts were like, blind fury. I typed “but strikes are a tool of the working class!! What are you even talking about?” more times than I’d like to admit. But then, I talked about it more with more people. I worked through some of the many different angles to it. And I have some thoughts.

The confusion about strikes, who can do them, and what they mean is partially the responsibility of organizers.”

The confusion about strikes, who can do them, and what they mean is partially the responsibility of organizers. We always need to do political education work, especially when we’re introducing tactics that are unfamiliar.

That being said, as activists it’s also our responsibility to educate ourselves. There are almost endless resources. The Movement for Black Lives has been on for years, and organizers have been inviting allies in, creating spaces for non-Black activists and innovating resources online and offline. And parallel with and before M4BL, people of color have been organizing. Working class and poor people have been organizing. Queer and Trans folk and women have been organizing. Our lives depend on it.

Obviously, the movement needs to grow and people need to learn, but there are plenty of resources out there for people to draw on (start with Wikipedia!) and it’s time that allies start educating themselves before they write think pieces about us. The onus should not be on us to correct your missteps, taking time out of our organizing to fix damage you may have done. With that in mind, I’m not going to define basic terms in this piece – if you’re not familiar with something I encourage you to do a little research!

Was the Day Without Women Strike Classist?

Strikes are about vulnerable workers coming together and refusing to work, with the knowledge that their collective skills and abilities can not be replaced without huge expenditures of both time and money by their “boss,” whatever form that may take. Their collective refusal of labor becomes their leverage against a boss that would normally have more power than them as individuals, and forces a concession to the workers’ collective demands.

But it’s a very risky action. It can take months or years of planning to pull off a strike, and they can go on just as long. Worker-organizers can be targeted for harassment by management. The strike could out-last strike funds, and workers can find themselves in bad financial situations. Strikes can fail. The widely known labor slogan “one day longer” is something we mutter to ourselves in the final stretches of a tough campaign. It’s meant to remind workers that we just have to last one day longer than the boss in order to win. Strikes take a lot of organizing and stamina and grit and faith. Like I said, they’re serious.

Is that what happened on International Women’s Day? I think in some places, it did, to a degree. Some schools, for instance, described organizing to support a closure on March 8th, because so many teachers intended to strike. I don’t know how contentious those conversations got, and I don’t want to discredit those women that did have to organize and fight. If the goal was to draw attention to the amount of labor, paid and unpaid, that women do in schools, I’d say that got done.

Some women, who had vacation days or understanding bosses, didn’t have to strike. They “took off work,” which is where this “the strike is classist” argument came from. And it’s also where it gets really complicated.

The Element of Privilege

The strike itself isn’t the problem, the problem is that women with relative privilege participated in the strike without interrogating their own privileged relationship to the risk and harm that women with less privilege may experience because of their participation in the same strike.

Women often have implicit or explicit power over other women. Professional women: Did you take a vacation day today? Did you give your housekeeper the day off if they identify as a woman or femme? Did you pay her anyway? Were you upset that undocumented women wouldn’t be able to strike because of Trump’s new take on immigration? (Did you call the immigrant strike classist? Why or why not?) Did you do anything to support groups organizing on behalf of those workers? Have you protested the new immigration policies? Did you help stay-at-home mom’s pay for childcare so they could strike as well?

I don’t think this strike itself was classist (because the strike as a tactic belongs to women, the working class and the undocumented already), but some of the people that participated certainly are.

The March on Washington was many women’s first activist experience. That’s great! It was also probably the first time many of them have heard of intersectionality, because the march and it’s endless sea of bright pink pussy hats got slammed for failing to achieve it.

Grappling with Complexity

Intersectionality is important, and complex. I’m glad that more activists and organizers are grappling with the best way to achieve it. My advice: listen to the people of color whose lives depend on the fight. We know what we need. Get Safety Pin Box, and finally pay Black women for the intellectual and emotional labor you are probably demanding for free on Facebook or Twitter when you ask how you can be a better ally. Learn what poor people’s movements have looked like over time, and what tactics have been successfully employed.

I know people are trying to demonstrate that they understand intersectionality and the complexities of cross-class and multiracial organizing by calling out strikes as privileged or classist, but what it really does is demonstrate a remarkable lack of knowledge of and respect for movement history, reveals a healthy dose of contempt for the working class and poor, and undermines a powerful tactic of the working class.

Do not speak on behalf of those you have privilege over. Do not say the strike was for those who can afford not to work. That is what we call a “boss” argument, or one that is designed to uphold the status quo. This is the same logic a manager or owner relies on to maintain oppressive working conditions. Bosses rely on the fact that we as workers can not afford to lose our work for even a day, and ignore the fact we can make decisions about how we feel we can participate for ourselves, because no one knows our situation better than we do. It’s really hard to break free of this kind of mentality, and doing that work is part of the process of solidarity and allyship.

If you’ve been arguing that the strike was classist, you need to ask yourself: Why? Do you realize you’re undermining a powerful tactic that working class people rely on?

If you’re working class or poor or otherwise felt like you couldn’t participate in the strike, what would have made it possible for you?

Check out more on the visual history of strikers.

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