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Bolshie Women: waging a war on inequality

equal-payBy Joy Macready

Women council workers in Birmingham, including cooks, cleaners, caterers and care staff, have struck another blow against inequality. On 24 October a Supreme Court ruling upheld 174 city council workers’ rights to compensation over missed bonuses from 2004 to 2010. Male workers on the same grade received extra money that the women workers didn’t get. Five thousand council workers have already won their case for equal pay at employment tribunals in 2010. More will follow.

This ruling opens up the possibility of women working in other sectors launching equal pay claims. Bankers and finance bosses should be quaking in their boots – the pay gap rises from an average of 14.9 per cent up to 55 per cent in the finance sector.

Women workers in Birmingham haven’t relied solely on the courts as a battleground. When the council tried to equalise pay – by slashing men’s pay by up to £12,000 to level it down to the lower levels of women workers – up to 3,000 council staff took strike action on 5 February 2008. This was the biggest strike in Birmingham for decades.

A century of struggle for equality
It is this fighting spirit that brought about equal pay legislation more than 40 years ago. The Dagenham Ford sewing machinists’ dispute, with fiery speeches and flying pickets up and down the country, forced the Labour government to pass the 1970 Equal Pay Act. The women laid down their tools and refused to return to work until they were paid the same wage as men on the same grade.

Women’s resistance against inequality has a long history in Britain. Over 100 years ago, the suffragette movement led the way. On the day the Birmingham council workers won their legal battle, UK Feminista organised a lobby of parliament for womens’ rights, dressed as suffragettes and led by Sylvia Pankhurst’s granddaughter, Dr Helen Pankhurst. Many turned out after Jeremy Hunt, the new rightwing secretary of state for health, called for the legal time limit for abortions to be halved. Even those rights we’ve already won are coming under attack.

Class and Oppression
But today, as in the past, feminists seek to obscure the class conflict that exists within the women’s movement. It is telling that UK Feminista emphasised Helen’s lineage ties to Emmeline Pankhurst, Sylvia’s mother, a true middle class feminist.

In 1912, under the leadership of Emmeline and her daughter Christabel, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), or the suffragette movement in the UK, completely turned away from the working class and resorted to direct action aimed at terrorising the government, such as chaining themselves to railings, setting fire to mailbox contents, smashing windows and occasionally detonating bombs. Their tactics and isolation from the mass of working class women meant that in the period 1910-1913 the WSPU went from being a mass movement to a small guerrilla organisation.

Sylvia, a true revolutionary, broke with her mother and sister in 1913 and set up a working class organisation based in the impoverished East End of London. She knew that suffrage was a universal issue and that winning this demand meant organising the working class, both women and men. She fiercely disagreed with the WSPU’s swing to support the British war effort in WWI and gain “respectability”, and instead adopted a revolutionary socialist stance against imperialist war.

How can we win equal pay?
When women workers are still paid on average 15 per cent less than men almost 40 years after the Equal Pay Act came into law, the burning question remains: how can we get equal pay? Legislation alone won’t change the status quo. Working class women must lead the way once again:

Open the books to challenge the bosses’ secrecy and expose unequal pay schemes. Regular pay surveys and clearly defined wage brackets will give women workers the ammunition to stand up to discriminatory schemes. Mass meetings of male and female workers can collectively discuss pay and how to fight for wage rises. We can strike for our rights, like in Birmingham!

Roll back precarious working: For two decades bosses have restructured the workforce to expand part-time, low paid, temp-contract or under the table work. Women workers are pushed into these types of jobs to balance work with childcare. Let’s reverse this neoliberal drive and get the service sector unionised!

Fight Tory cuts to childcare, nurseries, social services, healthcare and public sector jobs, where two-thirds of working women in Europe are concentrated. Cuts in all these areas will force women to spend more time in the home and into more precarious work. We need a general strike to bring down the Tories – that will protect rights we’ve won like abortion too.

Under capitalism, the bosses benefit from inequality. They exploit women with low wages and use this to drag wage levels down. Birmingham shows how struggle can turn the tables on them.

The system as a whole benefits from the unpaid labour women do in the home, raising the next generation of workers – cooking, cleaning, childcare. The only way to rip up the roots of our oppression, which lie in the family, is by socialising this housework so women can participate in society on an equal footing with men.

That’s why we fight for an international working class women’s movement to mobilise women and link the revolutionary fight against capitalism to the fight for our emancipation and socialism.

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