What role will women play in the struggle for socialism today? As we have outlined, it is only through the working class ending capitalism that we can lay the basis for an egalitarian socialist society that will root out all forms of oppression. As women now constitute around half of the workforce in many developed industrialized countries – and a majority in some – they will play a decisive role in this struggle. Even when they were in a small minority in the paid workforce, working-class women waged heroic struggles to defend and extend their rights as workers and women.
The Working Class
Socialist and Marxists believe that the working class is the only force in modern society capable of leading the struggle for fundamental socialist change. It is not only a question of who is exploited and oppressed, or even who will fight back, but who can fight back and win. The working class’ ability to shut down the capitalist economy by both withholding its labor and by mobilizing mass movements in the streets, give it “social weight” or power in society that other forces do not share. Small business owners and farmers suffer injustices in the capitalist economy and could be involved in the struggles for change, but do no have the position, outlook, or power of the working class.
Who is the working class in this service-dominated, high-tech, precarious economy? The media and leadership of both corporate political parties would like us to believe we are all middle class – that the working class is a relic of the past, no longer relevant or significant. To socialists, neither income level nor employment status defines class. Anyone who has to work for an employer to make money to survive is working class, from a well-paid engineer to a minimum wage service sector worker or an Uber driver.
The working class makes up the vast majority of U.S. society today. We build everything; we make everything; we transport everything; we provide all the services – teach all the kids, run all the cash registers, clean all the floors, care for the sick, cook and serve all the food. We do everything that makes the system run and everything that makes our employers money. Well-organized workers have forced individual employers and the capitalist class as a whole to make significant concessions by taking workplace action, up to and including striking. In many other countries, the working class has organized its own independent political parties to fight for working-class interests from within the halls of government.
Women, whether employed in the wage economy or not, constitute slightly more than half of the working class. Historically, women have waged heroic struggles to defend and extend their rights and improve their conditions as workers, as women, and as women of color. These campaigns have been especially powerful when our roles as workers, mothers, and wives, that is, when our two spheres of labor – the productive and reproductive – have overlapped. One famous example is that of the 40,000 Russian women who, in defiance of their union and party leadership, struck their factories demanding bread and peace on International Women’s Day 1917 and sparked the revolution which brought down the Czar.
There are many other examples over time and across the globe: 7,000 Parisian women marched on Versailles in October of 1789 demanding bread and the recognition of the National Assembly which marked a decisive step forward in the unfolding French revolution. Thousands of South African women led decades of daily resistance to the apartheid regime – organizing bus boycotts, union recognition drives, campaigns against (identification) passes and police killings, even trashing the establishment beer halls set up to drive their traditional brewing operations out of business. Again, thousands of black women in the U.S. provided the organizational backbone, if not the speaker in the spotlight, to the Civil Rights Movement’s campaigns from the massively successful Montgomery Bus Boycott to the multitude of unnamed, coordinated acts of defiance and resistance at schools, libraries, workplaces, and on street corners.
More recently, the West Virginia teachers – over 80% of whom are women – sparked a strike wave that won wage increases not only for themselves but for other public sector workers in the state as well as increased education funding for their students. Recognizing a good lesson plan when they saw it, these tactics and demands inspired teachers in Arizona, Colorado, and Oklahoma. There is nothing U.S. working-class women need more than a vibrant, united labor movement led by a committed, audacious, uncompromising leadership fighting in our interests.
Why Unions Matter
While the working class is not yet organized enough to bring about decisive change through mass strike action or electing a government of workers’ representatives, we do have power in collective organization. Unions are the strongest organizations we have to defend and improve our living standards, but they have been in retreat for decades, facing a savage onslaught from big business and the corporate political establishment. This includes “right to work” and other anti-union legislation in many states, especially those run by Republicans. With the recent Janus case decided by the Supreme Court “right to work” conditions have been extended to the entire public sector nationally.
Employers oppose unions vehemently because workers, banding together and using their collective power, can exert some control over work rules and pay. Employers, individually and as a class, oppose any limit on their absolute control in the workplace and in society. However, faced with a sufficiently well-organized working class, they are prepared to make concessions, sometimes significant, to maintain their overall power in society.
When strike action is necessary, a well-organized union is indispensable. When unions are strong, wages – even for non-union workers – go up, as the bosses give concessions to cut across the desire of workers to organize. In the past, unions won the abolition of child labor, the eight-hour day, the five-day workweek – establishing the weekend! – as well as massive improvements in workplace safety.
The wage gap is the difference between what men and women earn for doing the same work. Overall, women in the U.S. make 80 cents for every dollar a man makes. This number has only inched up since the 1970’s. Another way to describe the same phenomenon is to say that, as a group, women had to work until April 10, 2018 to make as much money as men did for the year 2017. The gap becomes even starker when African American women and Latinas are compared to white men: they had to work until August 7 and November 1 respectively.
In unionized workplaces, the wage gap is 0. Zero cents and 0 days. Workers doing the same job on the same shift for the same length of time are paid the same. Everyone knows how much everyone else is getting paid because the wage scale is spelled out in the contract. Anyone not getting paid correctly can address it through the grievance process.
In addition to closing the wage gap, unions can address working conditions, meaning they have the ability to take on allegations of sexual harassment, misconduct, and abuse in everyday workplaces with everyday bosses. In part 4, we address this critical issue in more detail.
In short, unions give workers a sense of their collective power and their shared interests in opposition to the billionaire class. They point toward reorganizing society on the basis of solidarity and cooperation, not the markets.
The history of union struggles in the U.S. is very rich. Because the American ruling class is the most powerful in the world, it has ferociously resisted any incursions on its power. Working class families faced enormous privations and workers were shot on picket lines in ferocious struggles simply to win union recognition.
But we must also recognize that unions have often failed to play the role they should. In the past, many unions, especially those representing skilled workers, actively sought to keep women and racial minorities out of the workplace. The #MeToo movement has also shone a light on how pervasive sexual harassment is, even in unionized workplaces.
A key problem is that unfortunately too many unions today have pro-capitalist leaders like Richard Trumka. Trumka, the nominal leader of the biggest labor federation in the country, the AFL-CIO, has singularly failed to stand up to Trump and the Republicans despite their anti-worker, anti-union agenda. We need unions that are willing to struggle for all working and oppressed people through determined action, democratic functioning, and political organizing. Contrary to the common view that unions are made up largely of older white men, 46% of all union members in the U.S. today are women, while 33% are black, Latino, and Asian. This reflects the increasing diversity of the working class itself.
But as the revolt of teachers in a series of states and cities including West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, and now Los Angeles has shown, there is an emerging fighting wing of the labor movement. The teachers, who are overwhelmingly women, have put forward bold demands on behalf of themselves, their students, and other public sector workers, and have been unafraid to use their collective power. They have been rebuilding traditions of working-class solidarity in a way not seen in many years.
National Nurses United is another largely female union which has been prepared to take bold action and fight for a wider working-class agenda on health care, leading the call for Medicare for All. A number of unions like the Amalgamated Transit Union and the nurses have taken up calls for environmental justice. In reality, the only way for the labor movement to win a large share of the economic pie – after an era when the share received by workers has shrunk enormously – is by actively defending the interests of all parts of the working class including working women, immigrants, and people of color.
Of course, capitalism will constantly attempt to divide workers on the basis of gender, race, sexual orientation, etc. and therefore undermine their ability to unite to change their immediate circumstances and society as a whole. The capitalists, for example, have attempted to use lower-paid women and/or immigrant workers to undermine the wages and conditions of all workers. At times, male workers have themselves fallen into the “divide-and-rule” trap, attempting to exclude women rather than organizing to ensure that all workers have the same wages and conditions. We see the same thing happening with immigrant workers today in the U.S. and many other countries.
Socialists and Marxists, therefore, campaign for the maximum unity of the working class in industrial and social struggles and for the building of independent workers’ organizations, including political parties, which can aid the collective struggle of workers and raise their confidence and understanding of the role that they can play in changing society.
While we do not believe that women can achieve liberation or that the problems facing working-class people in general can be solved through gradually reforming capitalism, it is through the day-to-day struggles to improve their conditions and defend previous gains that workers can become more confident and conscious of the need to generalize those struggles and to transform the system as a whole.
A victory, in a campaign against the closing of a local school or hospital for example, could give confidence to those involved and to others that collective action can achieve results. Even if the campaign were defeated, involvement in struggle could raise questions about why resources so important to women and their families are being cut back and about the priorities of a system which puts profit before the interests of ordinary people.
However, for struggles to develop into a more decisive challenge to corporate power, a political force is required in the form of a mass party of working people based on a fighting program which links the immediate needs of workers to the broader struggle for revolutionary change.
Often the issues which spurred working-class women into action were those which also affected working-class men: low pay, long hours, unsafe working conditions, etc. But inevitably, working-class women have also taken up issues of specific concern to them as women as well as workers, both in the workplace and more broadly in society. Working women played big roles in the suffragette movement, the abolitionist cause, the struggle to end wars, and the Black Freedom movement, just to name a few.
All women, no matter what class they come from, face sexism. Therefore, many women’s movements, like struggles for the right to vote, for access to abortion, or the movement against sexual harassment and assault, often involve women from many different classes in society. This can sometimes limit the demands, strategy, and outlook of these struggles. Working-class women have and should participate in these “cross-class” movements and fight for demands and campaigns that address their interests. This will inevitably put them at odds with pro-capitalist “leaders.”
For instance, the struggle for reproductive rights should be connected to the demand for abortion access, single-payer health care, and guaranteed government-provided childcare for all. The insurance companies, pharmaceutical corporations, and the politicians that serve them will oppose these demands. However, these services are necessary for the livelihoods of working-class women, and we will need a mass struggle centered on the social power of the working class to win them.
While the ideas of the ruling class need to be challenged in the women’s movement, the labor movement – and working class men – need to be won over to the struggle for working women’s liberation. While individual male workers should be taken up on sexist behavior, sexism cannot just be rooted out through “sensitivity trainings” that aim to change the hearts and minds of one worker at a time. The most effective way to challenge sexism is through united action and collective struggle. There are important recent examples of this like the massive walkout by female and male Google employees around the world against sexual harassment in the workplace in November 2018.