International Women’s Day: A legacy of women workers and the class struggle

Protests against capitalism are spreading across the globe, photo Paul Mattsson

Protests against capitalism are spreading across the globe, photo Paul Mattsson   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

International Women’s Day, with its history of being rooted in struggle, has, in recent years, been diminished – much like the Pride marches for LGBTQ+ rights, have. Big business increasingly uses it as a cynical opportunity to give the illusion of being progressive and inclusive. Sinead Daly looks at the real history of International Working Women’s Day and the socialist ideas it inspires today.

This year’s main global sponsor of International Women’s Day is the notorious tax-dodging, union-busting, billion-dollar company, Amazon, whose CEO Jeff Bezos has a personal wealth of $110 billion!

This is a company renowned for its appalling working conditions, has a shocking track record on dealing with sexual harassment at work, and sacks employees who raise concerns about Amazon’s failure to take appropriate action to tackle the climate emergency.

What a mockery to the memory of the giants of history, upon whom the true legacy of International Working Women’s Day rests. The women garment workers from New York City, who on 8 March 1857, went on strike demanding an end to horrific working conditions, poverty pay and child labour.

They were attacked by the police, but continued with their struggle. It was from their movement that the first women’s trade unions were established. Inspired by the garment workers, women took to the streets of New York on 8 March 1908, demanding better pay, shorter hours and the right to vote.

It was an international socialist conference in Copenhagen in 1910, attended by over 100 women from 17 countries, which unanimously passed a motion establishing International Women’s Day. Indeed, the mighty Russian Revolution in February 1917 (Julian calendar) was ignited by a strike and demonstrations of tens of thousands of women textile workers in Petrograd celebrating International Women’s Day demanding ‘Bread and Peace’ and ‘Down with the Tsar’.

It was struggles of working-class women that have won us the rights we know today, the welfare state, shorter working week and the legal right to equal pay – although we know through bitter experience that these rights are limited and temporary on the basis of capitalism.

Women hit hardest

The last ten years since the global crisis of capitalism and the implementation of austerity have hit women hardest. Our public services have been decimated.

Women make up the majority of public sector workers and we rely more heavily on these essential services because it’s us who fill the gaps, for example, in the provision of care, when these services are withdrawn.

However, we have seen some significant and important struggles of women. Over two million workers took strike action over pensions in 2011 in a massive public sector strike. In Scotland, there was the historic, victorious equal pay strike in October 2018.

In Northern Ireland, members of the nurses’ RCN union took industrial for the first time in their history to defend the NHS, alongside trade unionists from Unite, Nipsa and Unison.

In the last few months we’ve witnessed the uprising of the Chilean youth and working class against the oppressive regime of Sebastián Piñera, fighting against the increased cost of living, privatisation and inequality.

Women, young and old, have been to the forefront of these struggles.

As a 60-year-old Chilean woman reported: “We are here because we support the movement. As women, we support the fight and what Chileans are calling for – for better pensions, the minimum wage. We feel that every day the Chilean people are going out on the streets and we have a government that isn’t listening.”

Already in the first weeks of 2020, mass protests have returned to Chile, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, Hong Kong, France, India and more. Global unrest is likely to continue because this system is incapable of delivering equality and a decent life to the majority of people, most particularly women.

Ending austerity, inequality, discrimination and the oppression of women means getting rid of this rotten, parasitic system of capitalism. It means replacing it with a genuinely equal society – socialism – that uses the massive wealth, resources and talents for the benefit of the majority, not for the profits of the 1%.

On 8 March 2020, rather than look to Amazon or any other of the billionaire-owned multinationals as allies in the struggle to free women from oppression, we are far better drawing inspiration from the historic struggles of the New York garment workers, the Russian textile workers and today’s French pension uprising.

Working women, as has been the case in the past and today, can and will forge working-class unity with male workers and all the oppressed to create a socialist world.