Communist Party of Australia

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Issue #1538      7 March 2012

Women’s liberation and labour’s emancipation

The first International Women’s Day march, in 1908 in New York City, was composed of women workers demanding shorter work hours, better pay and the right to vote.

International Women’s Day originated in the labour movement, was initiated and supported by socialists and has constantly raised demands calling for improved working conditions and better labour laws.

In 1917, on the last Sunday of February in the old Russian calendar (March 8 in the modern calendar) Russian women celebrated International Women’s Day by starting a strike for “bread and peace”. This forced the Czar to abdicate four days later, precipitating the start of the Russian revolution.

IWD as a celebration of entrepreneurialism

However, IWD in Australia has now become a celebration of women’s success and promotion of empowerment through entrepreneurialism – role models are women like Gail Kelly, CEO of Westpac, a company now shedding thousands of jobs to enhance company profits.

This focus perpetrates myths about capitalism that work against both women’s and men’s interests, namely, that under capitalism anyone who works hard can get rich and become powerful; and that capitalism creates the possibility for all to prosper, with the right mix of luck, work, dedication and entrepreneurialism.

In fact capitalism is based on profit and exploiting the hard work of others: its ultimate goal is not distributing wealth (and power) but accumulating and concentrating it, so we end up with the one percent or the 0.1 per cent owning and controlling society’s wealth.

When we look around the world we notice the share of society’s wealth has steadily moved from wages to profit over the last three decades (that is, the world has become increasingly unequal) and within this increasingly unequal world women generally work longer hours for less pay than men, are stuck in lower paid, more vulnerable jobs, and have less social protection and basic rights.

In a supposedly advanced economy like Australia women earn, on average, nearly 20 percent less than men in the same industry; and have jobs that are clustered in four or five industries and occupations, with generally lower wages and conditions. Pay inequity is evident in all industries and experienced by women at all skill levels.

Women gain through collective action

It needs collective action in the workforce with strong community support, not competition and entrepreneurialism in the marketplace to emancipate women. The way the market works and evolves is itself the cause of the inequality women experience in life and work, and the economic crises that hit women especially hard.

In Australia in the last few years women working through the labour movement have, with ongoing collective action, made significant gains of benefit for many women – for instance:

  • The paid parental leave scheme which provides working parents with 18 weeks paid leave at a minimum wage level, introduced in January 2011;
  • Pay rises for community sector workers gained through Fair Work Australia early this year to give them parity with public sector workers (to be phased in over eight years); and
  • The Workplace Gender Equity Act which is before Parliament and aims to smash the “glass ceiling” in larger corporations.

While these advances benefit women by addressing aspects of the labour market in which women are most obviously disadvantaged and discriminated against, these legal concessions to women’s equality do not go far enough, nor address the root problem.

The growth over the last few decades of casual, part-time, insecure and low paid work has risen because the labour movement, in Australia and overseas, has not been able to withstand the offensive by capital launched under the banner of neo-liberalism and the creation of a global market.

Driving this has been the increased exploitation of labour power made possible by labour’s increasing productivity. Because this has not been accompanied by a shortening of the working week, or the working day, to maintain a balance between supply and demand for labour, and to equitably share the benefits of our increasing productivity, it has taken the form of increased overwork and under-work, higher unemployment, growth of core and non-core work forces and growing inequality, which has been to the particular disadvantage of women, youth, minorities and older workers.

Women can lead with a visionary goal

In northern Europe, where workers conditions are amongst the world’s best, because of a history of strong unions and social democracy, left parties have advocated further reductions in the number of hours that define a full-time work week. They argue that a 6-hour day, 30-hour week is a threshold demand if both men and women are to achieve a balance between work and free time and gender equity, especially in running households and raising families.

Women-run trade unions have been at the forefront in pushing for a 6-hour day as a “normal” day for which a worker receives full-time pay.

This demand, which takes the interests of women workers as a starting point, because it allows women to participate more fully in the workforce and economy over their work life, is also a more correct policy for work time and gender equity generally, because it allows all categories of labour, particularly the most vulnerable, to participate more equally in the economy and share the improvements in quality of life and economic power this brings.

The working women of Russia, on International Women’s Day in 1917, precipitated the Russian Revolution, the greatest outburst of liberation energy in history.

Now all around the world, women are playing a leading role in popular uprisings against the efforts by the global corporate establishment to make working people pay for the global economic crisis.

Here too women have the chance to lead workers’ quest for emancipation by taking up a visionary goal whose most immediate and direct effects will be to empower women as workers but which, in being achieved will help all workers “throw off their chains”.

Capitalism combines formal equality with economic and, consequently, social inequality. The working women’s movement fights for economic and social, and not merely formal, equality for women. This struggle is inherently part of the fight for socialism, the struggle to overthrow exploitation and create a society where we can live in free association as enlightened cooperators.  

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