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For a Feminist Movement of the 99%, the Women’s Strike Was Just the Beginning

Yesterday’s widespread strike demonstrated that women are refusing to be the shock absorbers of coming crises.

In the weeks leading up to the March 8 International Women’s Strike, many in the liberal and even left media have been critical of the strike, arguing that striking is for privileged women or questioning its efficacy. Yesterday’s actions happened without the endorsement or funding of celebrities or corporations but were “organized by and for women who have been marginalized and silenced by decades of neoliberalism.” The day of action, with its slogan of “a feminism of the 99%,” has begun planting the seeds of one of its most crucial aims: to build a broad social coalition. It has captured a critical cross section of grassroots organizations and the left wing of the labor movement. Even from many of the most vulnerable, lowest-waged and most precarious workers, the strike received a resounding endorsement. Ai-Jen Poo of the National Domestic Workers Alliance wrote that members of the alliance would be participating by wearing red and there would be mixed participation in terms of work stoppage. In the United States, marches, rallies and other events were held in over 50 cities and towns to honor the strike and agitate for a new movement of women and femmes, cis and trans, and working women.

Importantly, yesterday’s strike didn’t just consist of strikers who were already “left” activists, and it did not amount to “just another march.” Everywhere you looked on social media and “IRL” [in real life] women and supporters were visibly decked out in red clothing for the day, making a strong visual statement. In some places, the strike closed offices and places of work; school districts in North Carolina and Virginia closed down because so many workers called out from work, as did the Providence Court House.

What these actions demonstrate is that women are refusing to be the shock absorbers of crisis, a crisis which has been exacerbated by Donald Trump but by no means began with him. Trump’s economic and social policies have and will continue to harm many women: Muslim women affected by the Muslim ban that was just reintroduced, undocumented and immigrant women who face mass deportations, transgender women for whom there will be no protection, and women and queer people for whom reproductive and basic health care will be unavailable. His cabinet is a “who’s who” of anti-education, anti-labor and anti-civil rights policy makers. What tools do we as women at the intersections of these various struggles have to fight back?

The strike is a controversial tactic, but one that women must build on in the coming months and years. It’s often noted that the unionization rate has been declining for decades; less often spoken of is the rate of workplace actions and disruption, measured by the Bureau of Labor statistics: the rate of strike action has declined by 90 percent since 1977, with 2016 representing the lowest strike rate yet, despite a large and successful strike by Verizon workers. The first International Working Women’s Day, in 1909, was the catalyst for struggles that won many of the labor protections workers enjoy today, and yesterday’s women’s strike took steps to revive it as a commonplace tactic by confronting an American political imagination that doesn’t see the strike as necessary, effective or possible.

For the new movement “by and for women” to get stronger, the strike has to get stronger, too. Quality — not just quantity — of workplace organizing and strike action matters just as much, if not more, when it comes to turning trends around. Yesterday showed that walkouts can work, and sometimes better than we might think. Harder to see are the conversations women had at work or about work. In this way, movement work mirrors the work of social reproduction, which is unpaid and often invisibilized. There is something novel and valuable about bringing together workers in traditional unions like the New York State Nurses Association (NYSNA) and the local of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) that represents faculty at the City University of New York (CUNY) with worker centers, newer unions and workplace organizations like the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU). It’s hard to measure the effect of the conversations people had or the work of building a movement that replaces the work we do for a boss when we strike.

The call for a “day without a woman” was taken up internationally and by diverse women in solidarity against marginalization, gendered violence and factory-floor concerns. Hundreds of thousands joined marches not only in New York City, but also in Chicago, Oakland, San Francisco (where protesters had planned to shut down an ICE office), Ann Arbor (where marchers set up a mass picket in front of the governor’s residence), and other cities. Rallies and marches also took place in major cities outside the US like Mexico City, Rome, Warsaw and more. The social, political and economic concerns of demonstrators varied too. In San Salvador, El Salvador, transgender women and their allies took the lead, and in Melbourne, Australia, 1,000 childcare workers walked out, of their jobs.

March 8 showed why strikes are necessary. Speakers on the main stage at the rally in New York City’s Washington Square drew connections between increasing pressures on women: falling wages, rising rents and lack of access to health care; from street violence, to domestic violence and police violence; from the occupation of Palestine and US wars abroad, to the Water Protectors at Standing Rock and the water crisis in Flint. Just as the feminism of the 99% draws out such connections between terrains of struggle, strikes, walkouts and other tactics of workplace disruption help bring to light the connection between our work life and home life and the burden placed on women who often have to do the lion’s share of both. There’s incredible power in demonstrating as workers and members of a community, and women are uniquely placed to do so. Just as the connections between International Women’s Strike organizers in over 30 countries highlight the shared experiences of women and workers around the world, thinking about, talking through and taking a break from women’s work has helped demonstrate the shared experiences of women, paid and unpaid, across a range of jobs.

The New York march ended at Zuccotti Park, where strikers briefly relaxed, chatted, chanted and “occupied” public space for a few hopeful, happy (and tired) minutes. There was a sense that yesterday was not the end of women’s strikes; as organizer Cinzia Arruzza put it, “This is just the beginning.”

Next steps are already taking shape. The immigrant rights movement has called for a general strike on May 1, International Workers’ Day. Follow-up actions are taking place so far at the national and local levels. In New York and elsewhere, International Women’s Strike organizers will hold public meetings to develop new organization and next steps.

We will need the types of solidarities and power that these kinds of actions create to beat back Trump and the neoliberal trends that put him in power. These will be our training grounds.

Note: Readers in the New York area are invited to join an IWS Post-Strike Public Meeting on Sunday, March 13, 3:30-5:30 pm at Verso Books, 20 Jay Street, in New York City.

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