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The women working class

Talk at the European forum of socialist feminists
Göteborg 1989

My background is that I have been working many years as an unskilled worker in printing industry and I have been a woman activist in the Woman Front, working with questions concerning women and work. Presently, I am the leader of a revolutionary party.

Earlier speakers have talked about the restructuring of capitalism. My point of departure is the new kinds of division of labour that is developing, capitalism using sex and race for their strategy. With flexibility as a key concept. As Inez from Northern Ireland quoted from her workmates: flexibility means sweat, means working at the boss' terms.

We can see two parallel processes. Attacks on the traditional working class and the trade union movement. And at the same time the growth of a new women working class more or less without rights. Closely connected, two aspects of the same processes. Green workers, subcontracting, undermining rights and working conditions.

The growth in so-called flexible work, especially for women, comes at the same time as the attacks on the welfare states. In many countries social rights are closely linked to having a regular, full time job, and the conditions now are getting harder. This means that it is growing more difficult for the increasing numbers of women working , and especially the single mothers, to combine a job with supporting and looking after her children. This is one of the main processes in the feminisation of poverty.

The trade union movement has not been able to meet these challenges. Partly because the ordinary workers have not the power in their own organisations. In Norway for instance, the social democrats have transformed the trade union, LO, from an organisation struggling for workers rights, to an organisation at the central level, promoting the policies of the social democratic government, or their policy in opposition, making agreements with the employers over the head of the ordinary workers.

But the trade unions have also failed to meet this development because they have not taken seriously questions important to women, as for instance the question of working time. The trade union movement has not seen women as real workers. As they have not seen black and immigrant workers or workers in the third world.

Workers of both sexes struggle at grass root level. It is important for women to support the traditional, industrial mainly male workers, defending their rights; rights won through hard struggle against the capitalists. When they lose, the working class as a whole gets a weaker position. But at the same time it is absolutely necessary to struggle to extend and redefine those rights, so that they can be rights for the whole working class, not only white, full time, male workers. For instance the struggle for the 6 hour working day. It is difficult to make this a common struggle, because men and women live very different daily lives.

The same hold true for the struggle to defend the welfare states. It is important to defend social rights, but at the same time it is necessary to see that the welfare state system were built on the women doing most of the caring work for nothing. A welfare system of today must include secure provisions for caring for children and the sick elderly. This is a growing perspective, mostly women being active in these struggles.

The women working class is a growing force throughout the world . You find 70 % of it in the third world countries. The number has been steadily growing. The numbers shows perhaps that we have to change our concepts of the working class, too.

We need new images, and the working class as a whole need a new international class-consciousness, based on who really compose it and what is the demands that really unite across the different boundaries. To achieve real unity it is necessary to take up contradictions and oppression inside the working class, both men/women, white/black. This is necessary to meet the offensive from capital.

The growing woman working class is a driving force in this process. It is growing, and actually in the beginning of the process of developing consciousness of its own position and role, based on both class and gender. And at the same time it is changing the whole concept of the working class.

It is of superior strategic importance to contribute to this process. And that will be my main point in this speech.

In Norway, the percentage of women participating in paid work grew considerably between 1960 and 1980, to about 70 %. About half the women worked part-time, but the trend was in the direction of more hours and permanent contracts.

This explosive development changed the womens awareness of themselves. They experiences were double. On the one hand they could do all men could do, at least as good. On the other hand, they were second-hand workers; many working part time, having lower wages, getting the lesser jobs etc. Out of this grew the beginning awareness of this being not an individual problem of not being qualified, but a question of sex.

At the same time the increased job activity triggered a lot of research and an active womens movement, contributing in turn to the change in attitudes. In Norway big campaigns for abortion rights, succeeding in 1978, and against pornography has not only being single-issue-campaigns, but has been struggles over how women should look upon themselves, about women being real human beings. This has had great impact.

My point is that to develop the struggles and the consciousness of the women working class, it is necessary to organise both as women and as workers, to develop both class-consciousness and woman-consciousness.

I'll give some examples of how we as activists try to work on this.

A few years ago some cleaners got sacked from a big industrial firm. The firm should earn some hundred. thousand kroner on replacing them with a private firm. The women got support from the union at the factory level, mainly male, but not at district and higher levels. They got no help from trade union lawyers and took the case to court themselves.

As I said, they got support from the local union in preparing the case, nearly all male but not in form of industrial action. So to strengthen the struggle the local Woman front invited to a meeting of support, and it was formed a support committee with people both from the union and from the Women front . With the women from WF the cleaners were able to talk about more aspects of the struggle, about insecurity, about the local reactions. Together they held a conference with women from other part of Norway having similar experience. The women from WF had experience with a special kind of self-assertiveness training, called bøllekurs and were able to train the cleaners before going to court. The struggle build on the womens experience both as working class and as women.

This combined organising made it also possible to get support both from other unions at grass root level and from the more activist part of the women's movement. And to see how the sacking of these women on the one hand was the first step in reducing the firm by taking women first and men next, and at the same time a part of the marginalisation of women workers.

The cleaners lost in court twice and the case was not admitted to high court, but it gave important experience.

The other example is about working with the question of women wages.

In Norway this has been dealt with in two different, unsatisfying ways. In the trade union movement the question has been about the low paid, not about the women wages. And accordingly it has been a question that has been dealt with as a more or less technical, matter within the boundaries of each separate trade union. And with small results. (It is much more to be said, but this is not to be the history.)

On the other hand women researchers have dealt with the question of women earning less than men, but this tradition has never been transformed into demands and negotiations. In fact, this has been two separate worlds.

Some years ago this began to change, because of changes in society. More strikes around wages were actually women strikes without anyone noticing; they were written about in the old trade union language. It was not made explicit.

I started to work with these questions in WF around 1982, trying to bridge the gap between activists in the unions and in the women organisations. From the thesis that combining these two lines of experience would lead to explosive results. It has been difficult and interesting, they represent different languages, different cultures, different ways of thinking. Some of us, have been able to translate.

As a part of this work we/WF established an action group on women wages. The main slogan is: women demand a wage to live on. The group consists of working women with different background, activists in trade unions and in the Women front, and women with no previous political experience.

Our main activity has been to show and explain that women systematically earn less than men. And that women have similar wages across very different kinds of work and occupation, paid as women. That women with training get a wage more similar to untrained women than to trained men. No news here, but not an established political fact in Norway until recently. As one of the consequences of these facts we have worked to spread the idea
that women must cooperate and struggle together across the boundaries of separate trade unions, and between unions and the womens movement. We have held meetings and spread material to individuals, unions at different levels, women organisations etc.

In all our stuff we make it an important point to avoid both the government and the trade union concepts/jargon, making the questions of what you earn a difficult one. Our point is that all women are experts of their own lives and wages. They know what is true when the trade union leader says that the wages have gone up. They know they can't afford being moderate to save the country's economy. We want to be able to translate from the language that alienate women from their own wages . We want to make women ready to fight in their own language.

Even if the group has been small, the impact has been great . The main demand now is a a demand for a negotiated minimum wage no less than 90 % of the average in industry. This was also the demand of a conference held by trade union activists in opposition. This year for the first time the question of women wages was an important question at the national trade union congress.

My point here is the way of organising so that trade union experience and women activist experience at grass root level unite together with women without these backgrounds. So that it is possible to have a full understanding of the question of women wages and release the full potential for struggle. And teaching women workers to see themselves as an important driving force for change.

I have chosen wages as an example. I could as well taken the struggles of nurses and hospital workers. Our friend from Belgium talked about the nurses demonstrating on the 8th of March without noticing the meaning of the day. It is equally important to bridge the gap between these kinds of activists and the women movement.

This kind of work need a strong women movement, to make us able to keep us looking at the world from the women point of view.

These new ways of organising grow all over the world, organising as women and as workers. In the Philippines, there is an organisation of women workers, with a charter putting forward the main questions of the women in the world. SEWA, in India, is an organisation of another kind of women workers, in the informal sector. In Malaysia there is women activists among the workers outside the officially controlled trade unions. In England and Holland there has been some local organising of home workers. And there is a growing networking between them.

I see this as a start for a new international workers movement. With capital on its offensive we need a new international workers movement, built on the whole working class. Women should be in the lead, because their immediate claims are in the direct interests of the whole class. And we have to break the eurosentrism of our countries and see that the women in the third world are in the forefront.

It is interesting to see that the Phillipinian women workers and the home workers of Britain have basically the same claims. The right to work at regulated working hours, to a wage that make it possible to support your children. Safety when falling ill or being unemployed. Provisions for children and sick and old people. Some basic standards of housing, health and training. And the rights and possibilities for organising.

A new international .workers movement must start from networking around these claims, at grass root level. It is necessary to go over the limits of traditional trade union ways of thinking and doing. This movement must link workers' organisations close to women's groups, ecological movements; anti-racist groups etc.

Against split, we put unity. Always allying with those further down in the capitalist hierarchy, always making sure
they'll not have to pay or not have to take our garbage. Out of the new ways of organising are also growing new thoughts about organising society in the future. Capitalism split society into work and "leisure", the sphere of work and sphere of home. The men can in a way live with that split, as long as they have got a job, but the women can't, they are torn between the two parts. They become split, in women at work and home, trade union activists, women activists, working with each part of life.

New ways of organising today to make women and their lives and struggles recognized as a whole and open up for strategies for a society that does the same.