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8 march 2019 in Belgium: a return to combative traditions on International Women’s Day

Where last year the ROSA campaign was one of the only organisations taking initiatives for real action – and not just conferences, debates, media activities – with marches in different cities, this year the number of appeals for action have multiplied. The call for strike action by different trade unions in Belgium is a big step forward.

By Anja Deschoemacker

There are two main reasons for this: on the one hand the growing mobilisations around women’s issues that has been a trend in the last years and on the other hand the tumultuous social agenda which has developed since the end of last year with the fall of the government, the breaking up of the wage negotiations between the trade unions and the bosses’ organisations with a massive general strike on February 13 and the running up to next elections in may (regional, national and European) and all that against the background of an exploding youth movement around climate.

In this article we want to look closer at the present women’s movement: where does it come from, what’s at its base, what are the demands and how does the movement orient itself, what are the similarities and differences with earlier feminist waves? And also: which forces are present in it, which of those are allies for socialist feminism and what is the strength of bourgeois feminism today?

The present heightened activity doesn’t fall from the sky. Young women and female workers have been raising their voices more and more in a growth of campaigns around sexism and harassment, but also in the growing social conflicts in the “women’s work sectors”, especially in health care where the “white rage” has never really disappeared since the first massive actions of the sector in 1988 .

Number of working women rose spectacularly since the 1960’s

Gent

In comparison with the earlier feminist wave in the 1970s, the labour market participation of women is more generalised. Where in the ‘50s and ‘60s it was still a normal thing for married women with children to withdraw from the labour market (the male bread winner model), today the two income model has totally broken through.

A high percentage of non-working women today is to be found mostly among one parent families, where the combination of work and care for the family is often untenable, also due to the combination of low wages and high work flexibility that is demanded and the insufficient, inflexible and expensive services like childcare. The highest labour market participation of women is to be found among single women without children and among couples with children.

From a study in 1994 of the Antwerp University’s Center for Social Policy:

 “Since the sixties and mostly since the seventies the participation of women in the labour market has grown constantly. In Belgium the activity degree of women went up from 27,7% in 1970 to 33,1% in 1985 and to 41% in 1993. In the same period the male activity degree went down from 70% in 1970 to 58% in 1993. (…) The rise in labour market participation was very substantial most of all among married women and women living in couples. In Flanders the participation went up from 34,5% (1976) to 61% (1992) in a relative short period of 15 years. Wallonia follows the same trend, albeit at a somewhat slower speed.”

Since 1994 that trend has totally pushed through. In “Trends on the Belgian labour market 1993-2013” Statbel (public statistics institution) offers the following analysis:

 “The number of working women grows with 75%. The total number of workers grew by more than one million people between 1993 and 2013. In 2013, 4,530,00 people were working compared to 3,457,000 workers in 1983. Although there are still less women at work than men, the number of working women rose spectacularly in the last three decades. The last 30 years 890.000 more women were in a job, this is a growth with 75%. The number of men with jobs rose much less (+8%). In 2013, women represented 46% of working people, while their part in 1983 was 34%. We see thus clearly a feminisation of labour.”

“Where in 1983, 36.3% of women between 15 and 64 years was working, in 2013 that figure is up to 57.2%. The male participation degree, which is at 66.4% in 2013, has remained more or less constant (between 66% and 69.5%). The last years the male labour market participation degree shows a lightly downward trend due to the financial-economic crisis that impacted mostly male employment in industry. The big catching up movement of women in the labour market makes that the gap between the male and female labour market participation degree diminished from 32.5% in 1983 to 9.2% in 2013.”

Women are overrepresented in sectors that are forced to fight

That today a majority of women have jobs outside of their houses doesn’t mean that they have achieved financial independence. Almost half of working women work in part-time jobs and often cannot claim economic independence without being poor  in the present period of high cost of housing and of living in general. Part of that situation is also the fact that almost all support, like part-time unemployment benefits, has been cut away in three decades of neoliberal policies.

In many of the new labour market sectors – characterised by low wages, part-time jobs, temporary and insecure contracts, little or no trade union traditions – women make up the majority of the workers. In sectors like the care mothers (a state subsidized statute for people who mind children in their own houses) or the service cheque companies (a state subsidised statute for mostly house cleaners, but also in some situations personal care at home) women are even more than 90%. The growth in the services sector – private services as well as state subsidized services – has been for a long time the most important sector for job growth on the labour market while industrial employment keeps going down.

The growth of insecure statutes happens also in public services, where in many case the number of contractual workers (on temporary contracts) has become bigger than the number of workers on a public statute contract. That happened through decades of austerity with among others a freezing of nominations into public statute. Also in public employment we have seen a spectacular growth of the number of jobs which don’t offer enough security to live independently without being poor.

In these sectors there has been a growing will to fight. In the care sectors – a women’s sector par excellence, even if ever more men are employed in it as well – the white rage has become a term everybody knows. Since the end of the ‘80s this sector continues to break out regularly and massively in action around wages and working conditions. Trade union presence and traditions have been built in that period and continue to be build. Also in the hard struggle in the supermarket sector, where the bosses have launched an all-out attack on the working conditions obtained in the past, women workers are central in the resistance.

The reality on the labour market – and its consequences for the lives and the position of large numbers of women – confronts so harshly the ideas of post-feminism that has been dominant for a whole historical period after the last feminist wave, that an enormous gap has grown between the official women’s organisations and their propaganda on the one side and the reality as women – and mostly young women – experience it. When the women’s struggles flared up again, it was not around the known figures of bourgeois feminism, nor around the demands that were usual in those circles. In the US, the new women’s struggle started at the very same moment that Hillary Clinton, main figure for bourgeois feminism and supported by all official women’s organisations, suffered a painful defeat against Trump.

Women are no longer a small minority in the trade unions

There is nothing surprising in the fact that the socialist trade union in its campaign towards the general strike of February 13 and in its campaign for a general minimum wage of 14 euro/hour presented a whole series of women’s jobs where that minimum hourly wage is quite lower than 14: hairdresser, cleaning lady, child minder, etc.

In the last 10 to 15 years the presence of large numbers of female union members demanding action has translated itself in both big trade union federations in a bigger sensitivity towards a number of central demands that are crucial for female workers. It’s not just a thing of quota for the trade union structures (agreed in the eighties) any more, but the taking up of demands and organising/supporting struggles that integrate women into the trade union struggles.

In the last few years, both big trade union federations have developed specific women’s campaigns. And the search for ideas, demands, programme, strategy and tactics is ongoing. Two years ago the ABVV (socialist trade union) has broken off its cooperation around Equal Pay Day with Zij-kant (women’s organisation of the bourgeoisified Flemish social democracy and almost indistinguishable from the liberal women’s organisations). Women’s commissions are looking for ideas and a programme and Rosa is regularly invited to present itself for them, very recently for the first time also in the Christian trade union.

The 8th of March strike

St Pierre hospital Brussels

The lack in Belgium of traditions in the workers’ movement of an attention for women’s issues means that the ideas in those debates are often still quite confused, as the cooperation between the ABVV and Zij-kant showed.

The Christian trade union, which after Me Too hasn’t only organised studies into the prevalence of sexual harassment in a number of women’s sectors, but also had a large internal discussion on the question of sexism and sexual harassment in their own ranks, has reacted to the appeal to strike of a small group of mainly petty bourgeois feminist activists that had assembled last year in the “8 March collective”.

By launching this appeal the collective gave the impulse for a growing call for a strike, which is very positive, but their call is itself very limited. The collective calls for a women’s strike of paid work, household work/care and a sex strike. The call has been taken over such as it is by the CNE (Christian trade union of white collar workers), but once in discussion in the trade union itself this character could not be maintained. The strike notification, and in a number of workplaces and sectors the real mobilisation for a proper strike, counts for all trade union initiatives for the 8th of March for women as well as for men and, obviously, the notification covers strikes in the workplaces.

Rosa supports the strike appeal, but only the call for a real strike, a strike of paid work, obviously for women as well as for men, for higher wages, against austerity and against sexism. We think a strike of work and care in the households is not possible for an important layer of women (a third of the families with children in the Brussels Region are one-parent families). More important than that however is that such a “strike” is not a strike, but an individual action where it’s not clear against whom it is aimed. It puts the emphasis on the struggle within the family about who does what.

For Rosa, this is not the way forward. It is not individual, but structural elements in society that make sure that the traditional division of work between men and women is still very much there. We bring forward the demand for socialising the “household” tasks and care. The new increase in work in the family is a consequence of the breaking down of social policies and public services.

Rosa calls on the unions also to not just make a notification, but to really organise the strike and to use it to strengthen the unity and solidarity of the personnel on the workplace itself by by involving the whole membership. In a number of workplaces, where LSP members have built a base over a longer period of time and have intervened with Rosa for the 8th of March strike, the walkouts are combined with a workers’ assembly about the problems as they present themselves on the workplace and in society at large. That is the case at the Gent University, the Flemish University in Brussels and in the Brugman hospital in Brussels.

What connection to Me Too and the large movement against sexism?

Where the growing presence of women in the trade unions, combined with the necessity to fight in a whole series of women’s sectors (due to austerity in the public services and the subsidized care sector, restructuring in the private service, new and largely unorganised sectors), have changed the attitude of the trade unions toward the larger women’s question, the push to pass over to action came from the young women who’ve been in the last couple of years shouting out their anger about daily sexism.

Campaigns on Flemish social media that involved a massive number of mostly young women, like “we do not exaggerate” (2015), followed by “we speak for ourselves” have kept the theme of sexism high on the agenda. While mostly young women were actively involved in them, it was clear that a lot of female trade union activists had a growing interest in them. For years on end, badges around women’s issues are among the best sold material on the party’s stalls on trade union demonstrations.

When Me Too started worldwide, in Flanders it was like a take 2. Where in those first social media campaigns the question of sexual harassment in power relations (in education between pupils/students and teacher/professor, between unknown victims and celebrity figures, between workers and their bosses/supervisors) was only one element in the broad denunciation of sexism in society and mostly in the streets, in the Me Too phenomenon as it developed in Belgium the emphasis was immediately put on the workplaces, with shop steward delegations taking up their responsibility to start working around just complaints. Since then several initiatives have been taken in the trade unions, often still confused on ideas and programme, but with a big openness for the ideas that Rosa defends.

But the huge reason lying behind the strike notification by a growing number of trade unions is the present dynamic of a growing social conflict, where a huge dynamic example is given by the youth strikes for the climate. The social agenda for the month of march is full, with campaigns of trade unions and a number of sectors, the women’s movement, the youth movement, the movement of immigrants without papers,… who start to run into each other and passing into a large resistance against the present system and the place in it of big companies and governments. Without this large cadre the idea for a strike for the 8th of March and the 15th of March (climate strike) would not have passed like that.

Anti-sexism is an important radicalising factor among youth while bourgeois feminism has nothing on offer

In Belgium, there has not been a mass movement of women, which has been the case in big parts of the world, among others in Ireland, Spain, Poland, Iceland, India, Turkey, the US and several countries in Latin America. But certainly among youth it is a mood that is very largely present and that is characterised by a strong anti-system sentiment.

Off course in the women’s actions, which are still growing in the number of participants, and in the discussion on social and other media all sorts of forces are present who demand their place in the debate. But it is clear that the dynamic element in the new struggle doesn’t come from the old bourgeois feminist organisations, who have it difficult to put their stamp on the movement. While they are sometimes presented and pushed forward in the media, young activists have often never heard of them or find it totally incredible that female establishment figures would make any difference.

This has been shown again in the developments in the question of abortion rights, where the social democratic and liberal parties have made a law proposal for a real decriminalization and for steps ahead in abortion rights (among others a longer period), but organised no struggle whatsoever around it. It lead to a situation in which the right wing government worked on its own proposal, which changes nothing in reality, that finally was signed also by the liberal parties. Everyone had profiled themselves and that was the end of it.

It is not new that an important component of working class women is active in the feminist wage, that was the case in former feminist waves as well. In Belgium, the protests of the late sixties and most of the seventies got started up by the women’s strike for “equal wages for equal jobs” of the female workers of FN in 1966, a strike that lasted 12 weeks and led to important concessions. It is new that the bourgeois women’s organisations and female bourgeois politicians have nothing to offer the movement.

The right to vote, legal equality, abolishing misogynist stipulations in family law, abortion rights, etc. They were all demands around which women of different classes could assemble and the breaking up of the movement on class lines, between the bourgeois women’s organisations and the movement of working women (linked to the socialist or communist parties and/or the trade unions) happened on another field, in the working class struggle for general demands that are important for working women which the bourgeois women’s organisations refused to support.

Now things are different. Since the eighties, the bourgeois women’s organisations have been fixating on demands like quota for important functions in business life and politics – that is the only programmatic point that remains for them. For the vast majority of women these demands don’t make any difference at all. Also the – symbolic because unfeasible – anti sexism law that was voted on after the first bigger public discussion on sexism after the documentary “Femme de la rue” on street harassment, was all but impressive.

The demands that have been put forward by the women’s organisations linked to the workers’ movement are of a totally different sort. A few years ago Femma (women’s organisation of the Christian workers movement in Flanders) has popularised the old demand of a shorter working week within the framework of the combination of work and family as well as equality between women and men. In the meantime, their widely discussed demand for a 30-hour work week has been taken up by several trade unions in the more tradition formula of a 30 or 32 hour work week without loss of pay and with compensatory recruitment, an old trade union demand that stayed in the drawer for a very long time. There is a focus on wages and pensions, something in which the demands and actions of the socialist trade union today for a general minimum hourly wage of 14 euro and a minimum pension of 1500 euro/month fit with perfectly.

The bourgeois feminist politicians remain very far from these demands and where social democratic female MP’s put them forward out of opportunism, they are seen as not very credible.

In the struggle against sexism they miss moreover a number of crucial elements to up their popularity. The anti-sexism of today does not aim at all men in general, but is more than in the past aimed at big companies and the policies that are being decided in the interests of big companies. In that sense, consciousness has a lot in common with what is present in the youth movement around the climate: there is confusion, there are elements of looking for individual solutions, a certain moralism, but also an understanding among broad layers of activists that these things are insufficient and that a more thorough intervention is necessary in how society functions.

Petty bourgeois feminism versus socialist feminism

The ideas of working class women find their way in the movement, but they are also responded to by petty bourgeois forces who base themselves today mostly on theories around identity politics. In Belgium, these force have tried in the last years to bring the principle of non-mixed action (women only demonstrations, e.g.) into practice, so far with little success. But their ideas have a certain attractiveness by their radical rhetoric.

The last years, all social movements in Belgium orientated to the trade union movement and took on its action methods. It is a natural consequence of the continual mass action of the working class since the huge action plan of 2014. The busy trade union agenda of this beginning of the year is however not something that can be kept up eternally, it is a new high point in the strike wave that followed the coming to power of a purely right wing government for the first time since the mid-eighties.

But even though the power of the workers’ movement in society, its enormous numerical weight and its capacity to bring huge masses of people to protest in the streets, is manifesting itself openly in the last years, it is also clear for broad layer of combative activist in the ranks of the trade unions that the leadership doesn’t have a strategy to win. The action plan of 2014 was an enormously positive and enthusing experience, but ended in the painful capitulation of the leadership who abandoned the idea to further build the movement to give the government the finishing stroke. They decided to “wait until next elections”. The present full action agenda happens without any real action plan and without a perspective on what it should deliver.

This lack of perspective and strategy of the trade union leadership has everything to do with the lack of a political organisation of the working class. Both big trade union federations are still linked (albeit with a smaller number of strings) to the old social democratic and Christian democratic parties. There are interesting developments, with the Wallonian Socialist Union calling for the formation of a left wing government in Wallonia of PS (social democracy), Ecolo (Greens) and PTB (ex-Maoist, now comparable in program and approach with SP in the Netherlands or Die Linke in Germany) and the ongoing internal discussion on the political representation of trade union demands that is being had in the Wallonian trade unions.

For now, we remain in the situation that the working class is politically homeless. The trade unions are seen as strong combative organisations that defend important demands, but they are not organisations that have the transformation of society as their main and central target. They have no strategy for it and it’s only in the last few years that the defensive struggle makes way here and there for an offensive rhetoric and struggle around a number of general demands that can have a broad effect in society.

In that framework in which the bourgeois forces have no solutions on offer and in which the working class does not have the necessary instruments (a party that would make it possible to discuss and debate on program and to pass over to unified action on the basis of that) to direct also this broader discussion in society, petty bourgeois ideas will remain present in all protest movements against the present system and the misery and multitude of problems it causes.

It speaks for itself that socialist feminists have to respond to all proposals that pop up in the women’s movement that have the potential to divide the working class. We have the best chances to do that if we are part of the struggle and propose the best demands and action methods in it.

Rosa Luxemburg defended the participation of the workers’ movement in the struggle for women’s voting rights because politicising working class women and pulling them in the struggle brings only gains to the working class, only a reinforcement of its organs that swell up with the masses of working class women, only a reinforcement of the unity and solidarity among its own ranks. With the Rosa-campaign that is the task we want to fulfil: involving women in the workers’ movement, also by assuring that the workers’ movement takes up the demands of all oppressed groups. Not to do it would leave young women and female workers who have had enough of the sexism they experience every day to the sterile bourgeois feminist propaganda and the radical sounding but sectarian and divisive propaganda of petty bourgeois feminism.