Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Can They Pull Off a Women’s General Strike?—Yes, No, and Maybe

The organizers of the hugely successful Women’s March on Washington last January have gone all in—their pile of chips in the center of the table represent their call for a Day Without a Woman—a virtual General Strike—tomorrow, March 8 which also happens to be, not so coincidently International Women’s Day.  It’s a huge gamble.  Can they pull it off?
The Women’s March began as a spontaneous reaction to the totally unexpected loss of Hillary Clinton—an Electoral loss despite a two million vote popular vote edge—and the elevation of the loathsome serial sex abuser and notorious misogynist Donald Trump to the White House.  After recovering from shock and grief spread like a sudden algae bloom across social media.  In the blink of an eye women across the country were engaged and organizing, including many with no experience in social activism or protest. 
But never underestimate the power and determination of women.  They went to work with the deft skill and organizational wizardry of the team leaders of a Girl Scout Cookie drive.  The result was that the March on Washington and its hundred of sister marches across the U.S. and the globe brought more than 2 million people in the streets and effectively shook the Cheeto in Charge from the first full day of his incumbency.

The Women's March on Washington and its Sister marches were hugely successful events organizers want to build on.
Heady stuff indeed.  Even more impressively the movement quickly spread beyond the mostly White middle class women and veteran feminists who had been Clinton’s core constituency.  Despite some bumps along the way, they quickly embraced women of color, the LGBT community, immigrants, and others in danger of victimization by Trumpism.  In the wake of the huge success women across the country decided to commit themselves to electoral action signing up as candidates in local, state, and Congressional races in record numbers.  They signed up for boots-on-the-ground campaign work, and opened their purses as never before.
So many of them also seemed to have really internalized the idea of intersectionality—committing to continued support of the struggles of allies.  Those knit pink pussy hats became a familiar sight and immigration protests, Black Lives Matter events, LBGT marches, and demonstrations of all sorts.
But many leaders, appalled by the daily avalanche of Trump, Republican Congress, and loony right wing state legislatures outrages and depredations against democracy, realized that stronger action was desperately needed.  But what?

A Day Without Immigrants was a model for Women's March leaders, but should also have been a warning to some potential pit falls.
The Women’s March began as a spontaneous reaction to the totally unexpected loss of Hillary Clinton—an Electoral loss despite a two million vote popular vote edge—and the elevation of the loathsome serial sex abuser and notorious misogynist Donald Trump to the White House.  After recovering from shock and grief spread like a sudden algae bloom across social media.  In the blink of an eye women across the country were engaged and organizing, including many with no experience in social activism or protest. 
They looked around and found two models.  One was the Day Without a Mexican actions that had their roots in the push for immigration reform in California in 2006 and were resurrected by Latino activists this year as A Day Without Immigrant protest to Trump’s fuck-‘em-and-deport-‘em immigration offensive.  While the actions were heralded as a General Strike of immigrants, only tens of thousands participated across the country.  But their walk outs generated enormous media attention and were widely supported by allies.  They were successful in keeping Trump’s feet to the fire on immigration and scaring the hell out of many employers who saw their essential labor supply threatened.  That in turn put pressure on business minded Congressional Republicans to distance themselves from the administration.

A national strike by Polish women against proposed draconian abortion laws moved an unmovable mountain and caused the right wing national Parliament to withdraw the legislation.
But it may have been the women of Poland who really turned their heads.
Early last October hundreds of thousands of women took to the streets of overwhelmingly Catholic and culturally conservative Poland with its  right wing nationalist government drifting rapidly to outright fascism on what they called Black Monday to protest the government’s proposed draconian abortion ban which would not only been the strictest in Europe but criminalized women and healthcare providers.   They swarmed and clogged the streets of Warsaw, Gdansk, Lodz, Wroclaw, Krakow, regional centers, and even some villages.  There were support marches and demonstrations across Europe.  Although the economic impact of the virtual general strike of women was limitedmany businesses managed to stay open and as did most government offices, the political impact of the demonstrations, which cut across all ages and social classes was huge.  Three days after the strike Parliament reversed itself and withdrew the abortion bill.  It was a stunning victory that unveiled the potential power of women.
The Poles had taken inspiration from the 1975 Icelandic women’s strike to “demonstrate the indispensable work of women for Iceland’s economy and society” and to “protest wage discrepancy and unfair employment practices.”  An astonishing 90% of Iceland’s female population had participated in or supported the strike which won major government concessions and changed the political climate of the island nation. 

The 1975 strike by Icelandic women reach an astonishing 90% national participation and changed the political and social culture of the island nation.
In an echo effect on October 24, the anniversary of the 1975 strike, inspired by the success in Poland, Icelandic women struck again as they had long ago promised if they detected backsliding on gender equality.  Again in overwhelming numbers they left work and stopped domestic chores 14% early to protest the lingering 14% wage disparity in the country.

The American Women’s March leaders look at those event and wondered, “why not us?”  After considerable internal discussion they began teasing an A Day Without Women event within a couple of weeks of their successful marches.  Then they went public with the obvious choice for a date—International Women’s Day on March 8 despite the short lead time to organize details and logistics.   Perhaps they also felt the pressure when women in as many as countries, especially in the European Union which have announced plans for an International Women's Strike on that day.  The Americans opted to join that movement and cooperate and coordinate with it.  Also a small but influential group of intersectional women philosophers, scholars, writers, and activists, including the veteran firebrand Angela Davis had already called for women to “strike, walk out, march and demonstrate ... to be done with lean-in feminism and to build in its place a feminism for the 99%, a grassroots, anti-capitalist feminism” on March 8.  The new movement was definitely feeling pressure from the Left.
They acted in faith that this event would just come together like the Women’s March.
While the call promoting A Day Without Women as a General Strike, the actual list of ways to participate seemed to hedge their bets on that:
1. Refraining from work—both paid and unpaid.
2. Refraining from shopping in stores and online.
3. Wearing red—a color of love, revolution, energy, and sacrifice—in solidarity.
In other words if a woman can’t afford to take off work or risk her job or has no one to attend to child care, she can bump down her participation to not shopping unless, perhaps there is a critical prescription to fill.  As a last resort she can show symbolic support by wearing red. 
The question is, can the Women’s March folks and their supporters pull off anything close to a real General Strike?
If the standard is Iceland and Poland the answer is a flat no.  If we measure by a shorter yardstick the answer is tough but just maybe.  Here’s why.
First, there is the big problem of just who can afford to take a day off work.  The answer is mostly solidly middle class women who can forego a day’s pay without disastrous consequences and have enough job security not to be met by security guards and the contents of their works stations on Thursday morning.  Women in some female dominated jobseducators spring to mind or who have supportive employers.  A handful of public and private schools and universities on the East Coast from Chapel Hill to New York’s New School have announced school closings and class cancellations because so many female staffers have requested time off.  But if a woman is holding down a Wal-Mart cash register, pulling a drill press in a factory, or at a customer service desk at a mega insurance company call center chances are that no matter her sympathies she won’t be in the streets.
This has led to a predictable scolding by those who point out that whatever claims of inclusivity are made, that this is the arrogant action by a privileged—mostly white—sector.  And that comes from those who should be allies.  Los Angeles Times writer Meghan Daum raised eyebrows and ire when she wrote.
Make no mistake, March 8 will mostly be a day without women who can afford to skip work, shuffle childcare and household duties to someone else, and shop at stores that are likely to open at 10 and close at 5…That’s why the idea that women should take a day off en masse to make a political point is both self-defeating and vaguely insulting. It’s meant to highlight how crucial we are, but its very premise also suggests the opposite: Women are expendable. A Day Without a Woman plays into the idea that we entered the workforce not to support ourselves and our families but to combat boredom or to boost our self-esteem. For all but a very few affluent women, that’s never been the case.
Secondly, General Strikes have been effective and successful in countries with well established labor union confederations and strong Socialist, Communist, and Anarcho-Syndicalist parties and institutions with a strong tradition and mobilizing capabilities.  Also where such strikes have transcended job issues and demands and embraced the General Strike as a means of wide spread class defense and an agency for broad social action.  The French have it down to a science.  And recently there have been General Strikes against neo-liberal austerity budgets across Europe from Spain to Greece.  General Strikes were also central to resistance to corrupt and oppressive regimes in Eastern Europe, during the Arab Spring, and lately in Turkey where a totalitarian regime is dismantling labor rights, democratic norms, and is attacking ethnic and religious minorities.

The largely unorganized and spontaneous Great American Railway Strike of 1877 was this country's only truly national General Strike.
In the United States, neither of those conditions is met.  Labor unions, although trying to fight back, are the weakest they have been since the mid-19th Century.  Only about 10% of the labor force is currently organized and many of those are in male dominated craft unions whose confused members are often supportive of Trumpism.  It is true that women make up a big part of the most vigorous sectors of the labor movementteachers, nurses, public employees of all types, and are heavily involved in cutting edge organizing in fast food, retail and unconventional campaigns like the Fight for 15 drive for a minimum wage boost.  And the modern labor movement, what there is of it, is disconnected and alienated from a General Strike tradition.
There has only been one truly national General Strike in American history and that one—the Great Railway Strike of 1877--was  entirely spontaneous and not organized beyond the municipal level.  It did scare the shit out of bosses, the government, and the fledgling labor movement itself all of whom took pains to see that it never happened again.  Since then there have been a handful of city wide General Strikes notably Seattle in 1919, San Francisco (as part of a larger West Coast dock strike) in 1934 and Minneapolis the same year organized by Teamsters and Trotskyites.  The last true General Strike was in Oakland in 1949.  After that the Federal Taft-Hartley Act made most solidarity and sympathy strikes illegal intimidating the big AFL-CIO unions.
The closest thing to a recent General Strike was in Oakland again—a city with a strong and radical dock workers union and militant tradition—during the height of the Occupy Movement.
The importance of a strong labor union movement to protect participants in a mass strike was demonstrated most recently after the Day Without Immigrant action this year where there were several instances of workers being fired at fast food joints, restaurants, and factories for not showing up for work.  There have even been reports that employers turned some strikers into the immigration authorities.
How many women will strike and hit the streets tomorrow?
A third indication that the Day Without Women might be on shaky ground is a relative dearth of internet and social media chatter compared to the deluge of Facebook posts that nearly overwhelmed my timeline in the weeks and day before the Women’s March.  There have been some posts but by-in-large ubiquitous memes are notable by their absence.  Even in the Pantsuit Nation FB group which was created by Clinton supporters and was a major focus of discussions leading up the Women’s Marches, the Day Without Women has lagged behind posts about building local electoral political action and personal antidotes.  Nor do I see it plugged on the pages of many intersectional allies to the women’s movement.  In this day and age low wattage chatter does not bode well.
Still, there are pockets of support mostly in coastal urban areas and university communities.  Over 50 locations have registered some kind of event in connection of the day.  Just don’t expect to see anything like the massive crowds that shut down central cities for hours the day of Women’s March event.
If expectations can be lowered, a Day Without Women could still be a significant event, get people talking, get under Trumps skin, and be a building block to a wider and long lasting movement that might someday be able to pull off the real thing.
In the mean time, I will not join with those who want to nit-pick an obviously well intentioned action or get on my holy-and-lefter-than-thou-high-horse.  I offer my encouragement and support.
And this old mansplaining dick will wear red tomorrow.  It’s the least I could do—the very least.


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