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Issue #1722      March 9, 2016

International Women’s Day

Women’s struggle central to class struggle

In the space of one year the World Economic Forum – a “gathering of business and political leaders committed to improving the state of the world” – has seen its predictions on how long it would take for women to achieve pay parity with men blow out from a “mere” 81 years to 118 years!

It concedes that “progress towards gender equity has slowed in many places”.

Such is the nature of progress in the current, crisis-ridden global economy. It continues to concentrate the planet’s wealth in fewer and fewer hands, creating an increasingly unequal society, even as its “foremost leaders” gather to “shape global, regional and industry agendas” to ensure the global market works better for capitalism.

These “leaders” do recognise that if a country’s competitiveness in the world market depends on the skills and productivity of its workforce, then the labour of women has “limitless potential” to “offer economies the world over” and should be exploited as fully as men’s.

But the corporate agenda to achieve this is to call for “inclusive and flexible” work cultures, for organisations to “illuminate the path to leadership” and for individual women to “advocate for themselves” and “when appropriate” become “effective role models and sponsors of women to help them achieve their goals”.

Such agendas do nothing for the great majority of women in the world who must work to live, nor does it in any way challenge a system that at its greed driven, profit seeking core generates gender and other inequalities, while driving humanity toward another global recession, with all its severe social dislocation, as well as into war and environmental catastrophe.

In Australia, the Australian Council of Trade Unions recognises the persistence of the gender pay gap, but advances a limited agenda to address this – more training for women, joining a union, encouraging men to share domestic responsibilities, making workplaces more family friendly.

Unions Australia, bodies such as Unions NSW and local union community councils, do however, advance a number of campaigns of particular relevance to women, such as defence of penalty rates and weekends and support for equitable parental leave and superannuation schemes. They oppose trade treaties that undercut wages, conditions and job security.

These vital struggles challenge employers’ increasing power over workers, where women are amongst the most vulnerable and least organised.

Serious campaigns needed

However, to address the gender pay gap and the disparity in work life prospects between men and women, unions and workers need to take up two serious campaigns around two basic requirements, to supplement these largely defensive campaigns:

  • A campaign for a shorter working day without loss of pay: In the 1930s the ACTU raised the demand for a six-hour work day (without loss of pay) as a way out of the Great Depression. More than 80 years later this demand is more than timely, to enforce gender equity in our work lives, shift wealth back from profits towards labour, to enjoy the fruits of our increased productivity and to progress labour’s emancipation generally.
  • Freely available, publicly owned and operated childcare: so all women may work without prohibitive childcare costs. This is central to ensuring women’s equal access to work and careers.

A shift to a six hour working day is underway in Sweden and other Scandinavian countries. Workers increasingly recognise that with new technologies they can spend less time at work and more time outside work doing activities they enjoy while the firms they work for still maintain productivity.

This contrasts with Australia, where the work-life balance is deteriorating and the average full-time worker does six hours unpaid overtime a week. At the same time part-time work, unemployment and underemployment are high and increasing. Jobs are becoming more insecure and workers more vulnerable.

Women workers in northern Europe lead work-time demands

It has been women’s organisations and women in trade unions in northern Europe who have led the struggle for a six-hour working day, seeing in it the possibility for women to work a full paid day, to equalise work and housework between partners, and to have more time to participate in society and politics. It has become an important aspect of working class struggle in these countries.

Likewise, in Scandinavian countries policies aim to support dual-earner families and ensure the same rights and obligations regarding families for both partners. A well-developed childcare system is a prerequisite for both parents having full-time jobs. The right to full-time jobs and improved child-care, therefore, are priority areas.

The existence of comprehensive, public childcare services, usually run at municipal level, with unionised, largely female workforces, has provided a strong basis for women to push for shorter work hours and gain greater parity in the workforce.

Economic equality

Real equality for women, full economic citizenship, this objective when as part of the working class, fully become co-owners of society’s production and distribution, participate in its management and share work time and free time equally with men.

Women mobilising around their demands are integral to strengthening the fighting power of the working class in the times ahead.

Next article – Activists protest WA Anti-Protest Bill

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