Last Thursday afternoon, millions of women and their allies across the world took to the streets, withdrawing all forms of labor, both workplace and domestic, in response to a call for a women’s strike to mark International Women’s Day. In New York, a few hundred people, predominantly women, gathered between the marble arch and the fountain in New York’s Washington Square Park. While more than 5 million women in Spain took part in the strike, the Women’s Day rally in Manhattan could barely be seen or heard from the other side of the park.
To go by spectacle alone, the rallies and marches in New York and other cities around the country might suggest an American women’s movement in drastic decline. It would be a predictable but depressing drop-off of the initial galvanizing rage seen in the #Resistance to Donald Trump’s election. On International Women’s Day last year, Washington Square Park was heaving with bodies and banners, ready to spill onto the city streets.
We don’t need to look to Spain to see the potency of a women-led wildcat strike — we can look to the teachers in West Virginia.
However, judging women’s activism by crowd sizes — even to focus on this one calendar day as a benchmark — would be to miss that in the U.S. right now, a profound, women-led movement is growing and spreading: one that does justice to the working-class roots of International Women’s Day. We don’t need to look to Spain to see the potency of a women-led wildcat strike — we can look to the teachers in West Virginia.
For about two weeks, 30,000 West Virginia teachers and school staff went on strike. Last Tuesday saw them earn a victorious end to their efforts, which shuttered schools in all the state’s 55 counties. The strike, one of the largest in the country in years, began with teachers demanding long overdue pay rises and protections against charter school expansion, and was also in furious reaction to austerity policies, particularly soaring public employee health care costs.
The strike ended when Republican Gov. Jim Justice, who had previously offered an offensive 1 percent pay rise, signed a bill, giving teachers and public employees a 5 percent raise and agreeing to the entire spread of the strike demands. The struggle is not over — GOP lawmakers have already threatened to cover the pay rise by cutting funds from Medicaid. But the strike, which rank-and-file workers continued for days after union leaders called for a return to work, offers a case study in the power of withholding typically feminized labor.
The teacher strike was not a women’s strike in the strict sense — of course, not all teachers are women. But women constitute more than 75 percent of teachers nationwide, including in West Virginia. In a poverty- and opioid crisis-stricken state like West Virginia, underpaid teachers are relied upon to carry out the care work typically placed on the shoulders of women in the home. The fact that the teachers continued to pack lunches for children from low-income families during the strike illustrated the extent of the burden of care they take on.
As one striking teacher, Karla Hillard, told the New York Times, “In West Virginia we deal with high levels of poverty and the opioid epidemic. … But then there are the smaller things, like kids who come in and they don’t have support at home and they just need someone to care about them and love them.” A strike organized around this sort of labor and its recognition is political action around women’s work. Little wonder that Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos dismissed the teachers’ struggle as “adult squabbles” on Twitter, as if it were some sort of domestic spat, over which “kids should not suffer.”
The teacher strike offers a model for a women’s strike in more ways than one. For one, it was a working-class strike. Teachers in West Virginia are among the lowest paid in a nation of underpaid teachers. The decades have long passed in which “working class” was synonymous with “blue collar” and public school teachers could rank as comfortably middle-class workers. Service and care work performed by women and people of color constitute much of the contemporary working class. Any women’s strike worthy of the title would require the inclusion of this vast working-class, female workforce.
Several elements of the West Virginia strike demonstrated how workers can take their destiny into their own hands and win victories against the odds. The teacher strike was unlawful, which is not to say the teachers could be charged with a crime, but rather that in West Virginia, as in many states, public employees have no right to strike. With labor rights under attack, no mass women’s strike would be protected, yet the teachers struck nonetheless.
The West Virginia strike demonstrated how workers can take their destiny into their own hands and win.
The rank-and-file also did not rely on union leadership to set the strike’s terms. The state’s three main teachers unions reportedly reached a deal to end the strike with the governor on February 27. But the strikers swiftly organized their own polls, in which an overwhelming majority voted to reject the deal and continue the strike. At a time of weakened union power — under ever-greater threat from court cases like Janus, which is which is now before the Supreme Court — and in an economy of increasingly embattled labor, the traditional strike as mediated through strong union leadership is not an option for most workers, women in particular.
“It has often been said a women’s strike is impossible, due to non-strike clauses, precarious labor conditions, and the vulnerability that a majority of women face in the paid workplace,” said the International Women’s Strike USA, a grassroots network of cisgender and transgender women organizer, in its call to action for the March 8 strike. “We believe a women’s strike to be both possible and fundamental in this political moment.” The wildcat nature of the teacher strike — feasible only through mass participation and dedicated, long-term rank-and-file organizing — offered a strong rebuttal to doubts about labor power.
It is precisely in recognition of the necessity of grassroots and sustainable collective organizing that made March 8 less of a litmus test for a movement than the teacher strike could prove. “Last year, what we saw was more of an outburst,” Ximena Bustamante, a New York-based organizer with the International Women’s Strike, told me as the modest crowd gathered Washington Square Park. “This year, throughout the year, we’ve been focused on the meticulous political work of grassroots coalition-building.”
Just as the International Women’s Strike focused on its sustainable grassroots work, the West Virginia teacher strike didn’t come together in union halls, but on Facebook forums and locally organized rank-and-file meetings, connecting together as a radical coalition. The strike has shone a light on a way forward, even as the death knells for traditional unionism may be ringing.
Teachers in other states are already looking to follow West Virginia’s lead. In Oklahoma, teachers are giving state legislators until April 1 to take action over pay and education. If their demands are not met, they are planning to walk off their jobs on April 2, closing schools statewide.
What it would mean to translate the teachers’ demand-focused strikes into something as broad as a mass women’s strike — which would mean a general strike — is a more difficult question. The demands listed by the International Women’s Strike, for example, would entail a radical undoing of the patriarchy and capitalism, such that true gender, racial, and class equality would be possible. A mass women’s strike would, by its nature, be an uprising — such is the societal reliance on women’s labor. It can’t happen in a day, but West Virginia’s teachers have forged an aperture for optimism that it could one day happen.
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