Issue 250 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published March 2001 Copyright © Socialist Review

International Women's Day

The women's resistance

International Women's Day commemorates the struggles of working women. Judith Orr and Jane Hardy report on how the tradition continues today

A great tradition

International Women's Day, 8 March, was set up in 1910 at an international socialist conference in Copenhagen.
  • Moved by German socialist Clara Zetkin, it was proposed as the female equivalent of May Day.
  • The date was chosen because two years earlier, women in the sweated needle trades of New York had demonstrated against their conditions and for women's rights.
  • One of the socialists' main demands was for universal suffrage--still controversial in 1910.
  • The most significant celebration of International Women's Day took place in Russia in 1917, when women's demonstrations (on 23 February under the old calendar) marked the outbreak of the February revolution.
  • The International Women's Day demonstration in Petrograd, 1917, which led to th4e February revolution
    The International Women's Day demonstration in Petrograd, 1917, which led to th4e February revolution

    The scene is Pensett Welfare and Social Club, which, when there were still pits open in the West Midlands, used to be a miners' welfare club. Today it is the venue for the Dudley hospitals workers' strike committee--this takes place every Monday. The club gives away free tea and coffee, and the strikers thrash out the way forward for the now seven month long dispute.

    The room, with its sparkly 1970s stage backdrop, is smoke-filled and alive with talk. Joanne, who organises speakers to go to meetings all over the country, shouts out above the throng, 'Who'll Smethwick? There's people waiting to hear him speak.' A volunteer is found and the business begins.

    The majority of the 600 strikers are women, and most of them are ancillary workers--catering and cleaning staff, medical records. The men are mostly porters. Today's meeting is 50-strong, and is chaired by one of the handful of men present. But the women are far from passive. Said one striker, 'I think the women seem to be doing more than the men, really. Yes, there are more of us, but we've got more go in us. We have got a few men that are very good, but when we go to wherever in the country it's mainly women who go.' It is clear the strike has had a dramatic effect on these women's lives. They are angry, determined and will not put up with patronising by anyone, be they the deputy prime minister or Unison general secretary.

    In fact, even the mention of the Labour Party invokes cries of bitterness, so let down do people feel by the government. The promotion of privatisation of the health service in the form of PFI is seen as the last straw. As one striker said, 'I have voted Labour all my life, and so have all my family, but I will never ever vote Labour again. I'm sure that goes for many of us.' There is a loud murmur of assent from the whole meeting. After the meeting finished the discussion centred on the general election, and the fact that one of the strikers will be standing as part of the Socialist Alliance against New Labour. There is the feeling that at last ordinary people are taking a stand.

    Afterwards I talked to some of the strikers about how they saw themselves as women workers, union members and strikers, and the effect the dispute has had on them. They all talked about how dramatically women's lives had changed since their mothers' day. Eileen Harrington said, 'I think women are more independent now. When they get married now and have children they automatically go back to work, and some women have got as good a job as any man.'

    Winifred, who is a shop steward in the catering section, said, 'At one time the woman was in the home and nothing else, but more women are in the workplace--the living wage is so low it's a question of necessity. Women are now more educated into feeling that they can stand on their own feet and do their own thing. They can have their own career, and they don't necessarily just have to be housewives.'

    Barbara Smith said, 'At one time women went to work for pin money, luxuries. Now women have to go out to work to pay the mortgage, pay the bills. That is the way the world's gone. My mother has always worked, from when I was a little girl--other mothers didn't used to have to. When I used to go to work it used to be to get a fridge freezer, or to tile the kitchen, or luxuries. Now it's more or less to pay the bills, and, with the young ones, the man's money just couldn't pay on his own.'

    Women and the union

    All the women talked about how important it was to them to be in a union. Maureen Haines has been a union member since she started work at the age of 15. So has Joyce Elgerton: 'The union is our voice really. I've been in a union all my life. So was my father. He had to join a union secretly when he first went to work in engineering, but he always said to me, "You join a union. They are your voice, they will stick up for you".'

    But none of them has ever been as active as they are today. Liz is the shop steward for the catering department: 'The strike spills into your social life. My husband is having arguments with people he works with because they think we've been offered a rise, like we've got what we want and still haven't gone back to work. People I drink with say the hospital is filthy. Well, we know they're filthy--we've been on strike for seven months. This is the kind of impact we want. I say, if they feel so passionate about it, put it down in black and white, write, complain. Now the dispute is just taking over our lives. It has taken over my life, definitely.'

    During the strike committee there were many pleas for more women to go out and speak at meetings to get solidarity from other workers. Some are still nervous, and agree to go with someone else if they don't have to make a speech, but invariably once they're there they get stuck in, as Joanne points out: 'There were these two women who had never gone out on their own. They'd never done it before. They were scared stiff. "Oh I ain't got to speak, have I?" they were saying. And I said, "You've just got to tell them what you're doing, like you're out on strike, and blah blah." After that they spoke and had standing ovations at both meetings--it was brilliant.'

    Winifred agreed: 'Many of the women say, "Oh, I'm not going to talk, I'm not going to say anything, and all of a sudden you turn round and they're being more verbal than you are. I used to be quite a homebird myself before the dispute, never even bothered about holidays or anything. Now I enjoy it, going round the country, and, well, I want to win.'

    Fighting to save the NHS

    There is bitterness that the unprecedented number of women Labour MPs have not been supportive of their strike, as Winifred went on to say: 'Some of the women MPs just seem to be interested in climbing the career ladder all the time, but they should be on our side. They all seem to have the same attitude. The New Labour women don't seem to be for us, just for themselves.'

    The lives of these striking women couldn't be more different from those of women MPs at Westminster. Ann Siviter described juggling work and family: 'We took these jobs on part time because we do have families. When I finish work at one o'clock I have to go home and look after my grandchildren to enable my daughter to go to work. My days off she'll go into work because her job is flexi. Men don't have to go home and think, "I've got the grandchild." Your time is valuable to you--you can't just pop out and do what you want. You have to go home and look after the grandchildren. That's one way society has changed. A lot of grandparents are looking after grandchildren so their children can go out to pay the mortgage. It's a vicious circle. But most of us here, we've rearranged our lives, we're still looking after our grandchildren, still going on the picket line, still going off speaking, and we fit it in.'

    The mood amongst the strikers is hardening. Hazel Wood talked about how she felt that they 'haven't been aggressive enough. I think we've let some of it slide by.' This has led to some of the women who haven't yet spoken at any of the outside meetings feeling they have to play more of a role. Barbara is one. She's done fundraising, but she is going to speak at meetings in Birmingham the next day for the first time: 'We've got to do this now before the general election. We've got to really push and push hard. Because it's been a long, long strike and people are down on their money, and we do have to push. At first I didn't get so involved. I came on the picket line and then went home, but now I'll do it every day. I have this feeling that if we don't do it in the next month or so we're not going to do it at all.'

    Winifred is angry that there has been so little in the press about their record-breaking strike: 'We get no media coverage that is really telling the true story. We've had to spread it ourselves.'

    Every striker wanted to be sure I was clear that the strike was about a lot more than the security of their own jobs--it was about defending a public service and their own dignity as workers. Jackie Etheridge said, 'We're thinking of our children and future generations, and that's what we're doing it for. There's a lot of us near retiring, so it's for the younger ones that we're fighting. We just want to keep our National Health Service where it should be.' Barbara agreed: 'We're not just fighting for us, we're fighting to save the NHS for everybody.'

    Maureen Haines added, 'At some stage in your life you've got to stand up and be counted because some bosses just walk over you, especially if you don't have a union. They think they can just do what they want because you have nowhere to turn. But you've just got to stand up for your rights.'

    Ann Siviter put it like this: 'Over the years the lower classes--we are the 'lower', the domestics, the porters...if they've wanted to cut back on anything it's always been us they've cut back on--hours, bonuses and everything. This time when it came about we thought, enough is enough, we're going to stand up for our rights. But whatever happens we are going to stick together.'

    There was more political commitment and guts in Pensett social club that morning than Tony Blair has in his little finger. He couldn't even begin to understand why 600 people are willing to make personal sacrifices to fight for something in which they believe. The women I talked to put him to shame.

    In 1910 the great German revolutionary Clara Zetkin proposed that 8 March should be International Women's Day, a day for socialists to celebrate the struggle of working women all over the world. Right now there are no better inheritors of that magnificent tradition than the women, and men, of the Dudley Group of Hospitals.

    New unions Polish style

    Dudley workers demonstrate
    Dudley workers demonstrate
    Polish cartoon shows nurses bashing government minister
    Polish cartoon shows nurses bashing government minister

    In December 2000 protests by nurses in Poland against poverty wages swept across the country. In Warsaw nurses fought with security guards, and 650 women occupied the Ministry of Health for three weeks. Other action included blockades at the borders and sit-ins at railway stations, stopping the Berlin-Moscow inter-city train. As well as demonstrations up and down the country, there were daily stoppages in clinics and hospitals. The trigger was a combination of draconian health reforms which have resulted in redundancies the closure of hospitals and clinics, and the reneging on a deal to increase wages by the government.

    After rising unemployment and a dramatic fall in output in the early 1990s as the Solidarity government implemented IMF-inspired 'shock therapy' measures, by the end of the decade Poland was dubbed the 'tiger economy' of central and eastern Europe. The major cities of Warsaw, Gdansk and Krakow are full of fashionable and expensive shops and restaurants. However, this masks the reality of the so-called transformation process which has been marked by increasing poverty and ever-widening disparities of wealth. Women have borne the brunt of the so-called transformation process in a number of ways.

    First, women have disproportionately suffered unemployment, have often been the first to be made redundant, and now make up an increasingly high proportion of the unemployed (about 68 percent of the total). In the early 1990s jobs were lost from closures of state-owned enterprises in light industry and textiles, and now there has been a widespread culling of jobs in the public sector as a result of the health reforms. The Economist Intelligence Unit estimated that 11,000 health service workers, 21,000 workers in education and 30,000 workers in the state administration lost their jobs, the majority of whom were women.

    Second, the only new jobs that are on offer are in foreign-owned supermarkets (French, British and German) which arrived in large numbers in the last three years. Women in these jobs are badly paid, about 1 an hour for cashiers, and have to be very 'flexible'. One supermarket changed all full time contracts to part time so it would not have to pay overtime, and workers have been sacked for trying to start unions. There are stories of appalling working conditions where women have to work long hours on tills without a toilet break. If this was a problem, they were told by management to wear nappies! Despite this, some women travel 28 miles to do a four-hour shift and come away with 4.

    Third, although social provision under the previous system was uneven and patchy, what did exist in terms of childcare, holiday provision and healthcare has either been cut back or closed completely. With low wages and a hugely underfunded health service, holidays in the mountains or at the sea and access to doctors in the workplace were an important part of the social wage. The widespread closure of nurseries in the early 1990s means that it is more difficult for women to work, and they have increased difficulties in juggling home and work. These tendencies have been bolstered by an ideological backlash spearheaded by the Catholic church to return women to the home by banning abortion in 1993. This was slightly liberalised by the SLD in 1996 due to overwhelming support in Poland for 'a woman's right to choose'.

    Poverty wages

    Given that the vast majority of workers in the health service are women, they have been at the sharp end of reforms. In 1999 the centre-right Solidarity Electoral Action (AWS) government introduced draconian reforms in education, health and social security. Health service reforms were based on a model favoured by the World Bank, which changed funding from being provided by the government to being directly financed by insurance contributions paid by employees to regional health funds. The effect of this was to cut spending on health, which fell from 5 percent of GDP in 1998 to 3.3 percent by 2000.

    Nurses' wages are poverty wages. They take home 120 per month on average, with rent and other bills at 85 a month before food or clothes have been bought, making them dependent on partners. One woman said, 'You can't get divorced, and you have to hope your husband doesn't die, otherwise you can't survive.' Another woman, a single parent with two children, could only survive by living with her parents. One nurse summed it up by saying that although she was a trained paediatric nurse, her wages were so low that she worked for 'juice, coffee and cheap cosmetics'. It was not unusual for women who worked full time as nurses to work as cleaners for up to four hours a day to make enough money to live on. If women lose their jobs, their redundancy pay is pitiful--one month's salary for every ten years worked. Therefore a nurse who has put in 30 years work could expect to get about 330 when she was put out of work.

    This has brought huge protests from health workers. Early 1999 saw 52 days of protests, with two national demonstrations, a strike by anaesthetists, the occupation of government buildings and hunger strikes. This brought the promise of additional funding from the government and a pay increase for nurses. By autumn 2000 nurses had still not received the increase they had been promised, which brought a new round of protests, strikes and the occupation of the Ministry of Health. The exciting thing about the recent nurses' protests is that they have broken the grip of the two dominant unions. OPZZ was the official union in the Stalinist period and was just a conveyor belt for the ideas of workplace bosses. In the last ten years it has functioned mainly as a social and welfare organisation. Solidarity has played the dual role of a political party and a trade union. As a political party it was responsible for the 'shock therapy' of the early 1990s which unleashed market forces and cut wages, and in the last two years it has been responsible for the draconian reforms in the public sector. The new nurses' union was started in 1996 by four women, and now has a membership of 100,000 (about 50 percent of all nurses) and 750 branches across Poland. Although some women have switched unions, the vast majority were previously non-unionised and had never taken part in action before. Despite the fact that Solidarity condemned the protests and OPZZ was passive, the protests were supported locally by members at all levels, who completely ignored union officials.

    Working class people are increasingly disillusioned with the market which has failed to deliver the benefits that were promised in 1990. It is a real inspiration that the most militant and serious challenge to market madness in the last decade has been mounted by women in the public sector and particularly by nurses, who have no previous history of militancy.

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