"Privilege" Politics and the Women's Strike
Over the weekend, I spoke to Tara Finn, a 31-year cashier and single mother from Miramar, Florida who will not participate in the International Women’s Strike on March 8 because it would mean losing her job. On her off-hours, Finn has been protesting in downtown Miami and at Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, and she is upset that she will have to skip Wednesday’s strike. “My work is not very lenient on people who take time off. A lot of my co-workers don’t understand why I participate in a lot of the things. They’re not really into politics,” she told me.
A growing group of feminist writers in the United States have critiqued the Women’s Strike for its exclusion of working-class and immigrant women, many for whom striking could mean getting fired, or losing wages they can’t afford to lose. Los Angeles Times columnist Meghan Daum mocks the strike as “A Day Without a Privileged Woman.” In a much-circulated February op-ed for Elle, the feminist writer Sady Doyle argues that striking is a privilege mostly reserved for professional, white and cisgendered women. When women strike on Wednesday, she cautions them to wear their guilt on their sleeves, bearing in mind “that many of [their] sisters cannot.”
True, vast inequality does exist among American women along race and class lines, but to critique striking as a “privilege” is to overlook the current moment in international labor organizing, as well as the long history of strikes led by working-class women in the United States.
"Vast inequality does exist among American women along race and class lines, but to critique striking as a “privilege” is to overlook the current moment in international labor organizing, as well as the long history of strikes led by working-class women in the United States."
Over the past 60 days, some of the world’s most vulnerable and least privileged women—garment factory workers in Bangladesh, Myanmar and Egypt—have participated in strikes to demand fair wages, improved working conditions, and overtime pay. Thousands of these women have been suspended or fired, and scores of union organizers have been arrested and detained. By any metric of privilege, it would be difficult to argue that American women are more oppressed than the striking Bangladeshi and Burmese women who work in sweatshops and garment factories for less than $3 a day, six or seven days a week.
Likewise, throughout the history of the United States, countless coalitions of working-class women from laundresses in Atlanta to textile mill workers in Lowell, Massachusetts have led successful labor strikes. So what makes it difficult for working-class American women to strike today? (Note: Striking is never easy, or without risks for vulnerable people.)
The answer has very little to do with privilege, and a lot to do with the decline of organized labor since the 1950s. Many poor and working-class women in the United States won’t participate on March 8 because they haven’t been organized in their workplace or their neighborhoods to see personal experiences of sexism, classism, and racism as connected to political and structural forces. Tara Finn, the Florida cashier, told me that if a group of her co-workers decided to strike together, then she would risk losing her job to participate. There is safety and purpose in numbers.
Today, in much of the country, the labor movement is weaker than it has been in decades. Union membership is at a historic low of 11 percent and still dropping. Twenty-eight states now have right-to-work laws that provide workers with strong financial incentives not to unionize. Many forms of striking are illegal—including general and political strikes. Teacher strikes are illegal in 39 states. In New York, the Taylor Law prohibits all public sector strikes. Because the majority of American women haven’t been organized to make demands as part of a coalition, or to view themselves as part of a political narrative, it follows that many women (poor, working-class and professional) will not participate in the Women’s Strike.
The purpose of striking is two-fold. The first purpose, which is largely symbolic (though material as well), is to make the value of one’s labor felt through its absence. The second, and more important one, is to have one’s demands addressed. In the case of the 2017 Women’s Strike, these demands include universal childcare, free abortion, free paid leave, and legislation protecting women against violence.
Taking these purposes together, some valid criticisms of the Women’s Strike emerge: Without the participation of immigrant and working-class women, how will the value of their labor be seen? And more importantly, will their demands be addressed?
These criticisms are not to say that the Women’s Strike is fatally flawed, or bad at all, but just to say that the only critiques that we can afford to make in 2017 are ones that help us build a stronger, more inclusive movement. Invoking privilege only serves to divide us.
Cross-posted from the Indypendent.