Interviews for Resistance: Don’t Just March this Weekend—Strike!

Sarah Jaffe January 17, 2017

As the inauguration of Donald Trump and the Women's March on Washington fast approach, one women's group has called for an action beyond simply marching. Erin Mahoney of National Women's Liberation explains. (Erin Mahoney)

Wel­come to Inter­views for Resis­tance. In this series, we talk with orga­niz­ers, trou­ble­mak­ers, and thinkers who are work­ing both to chal­lenge the Don­ald Trump admin­is­tra­tion and the cir­cum­stances that cre­at­ed it. It can be easy to despair, to feel like trends toward inequal­i­ty are impos­si­ble to stop, to give in to fear over increased racist, sex­ist and xeno­pho­bic vio­lence. But around the coun­try, peo­ple are doing the hard work of fight­ing back and com­ing togeth­er to plan for what comes next. This series will intro­duce you to some of them.

As the inau­gu­ra­tion of Trump and the Wom­en’s March on Wash­ing­ton (and its sis­ter march­es around the coun­try) fast approach, one wom­en’s group has called for an action beyond sim­ply march­ing. Erin Mahoney of Nation­al Wom­en’s Lib­er­a­tion explains.

Sarah Jaffe: Nation­al Women’s Lib­er­a­tion has called for an inter­est­ing set of actions this week­end. Can you talk about the call for a women’s strike?

Erin Mahoney: We have called for a two-day women’s strike, from Jan­u­ary 20th to the 21st, to coin­cide with both the inau­gu­ra­tion and the Women’s March. It is a strike of both paid and unpaid labor, to show­case how women do more than just par­tic­i­pate in the work­force. We par­tic­i­pate in many aspects of soci­ety that go unseen and real­ly make both the home and the work­place run. It is a call to action for women to with­hold both their paid and unpaid labor on Jan­u­ary 20th and 21st.

SJ: Talk a lit­tle bit about how you envi­sion this going. What is the process for peo­ple to join the strike?

EM: We want­ed to make this a real action. We didn’t want it to be some­thing that we just called for and hoped hap­pened. We want­ed to orga­nize and make it real. So, we decid­ed to add an aspect of women pledg­ing to strike. We have had a web­site, www​.wom​en​strike​.org, that was cre­at­ed after our Novem­ber meet­ing, with every­day women who came to our gen­er­al meet­ing and put this web­site togeth­er very quick­ly. Women can go to that web­site and add their name and write a few sen­tences about what they are strik­ing from and why they are striking.

We have got near­ly 5,000 sig­na­tures so far and they are com­ing in by the hun­dreds every day, of women sign­ing up to say that they will be strik­ing from doing emo­tion­al labor in their house­hold. They will be strik­ing from their pay­ing jobs. They will be strik­ing from fake smiles, from mak­ing things run smooth­ly, from laun­dry to child­care — a whole host of dif­fer­ent things that they are strik­ing from. It is real­ly mov­ing to see the rea­sons why peo­ple are strik­ing and also the breadth of work that they are strik­ing from.

SJ: The his­to­ry of calls for women to strike from unpaid work goes back to, among oth­er things, the Wages for House­work move­ment. Can you talk about how this part of the strike came to be a key demand?

EM: I think we were build­ing upon what we have seen recent­ly in oth­er coun­tries and also in our own coun­try. In the U.S., in 1970, women called a strike for women’s equal­i­ty on Women’s Equal­i­ty Day, August 24, 1970, where 50,000 women across the coun­try went on strike both from their paid and unpaid jobs. I think it makes the point that we do a lot more than just paid labor in this coun­try. In recent years, we have seen strikes in Ice­land, in Argenti­na, in France and in Poland, where women have gone on strike for spe­cif­ic things. Like, in Poland, strik­ing against the poten­tial ban on abor­tion. They actu­al­ly won that. In France and Ice­land, protest­ing the wage gap and walk­ing off their jobs at the part of the day where they stopped being paid and men con­tin­ue to get paid.

Women have used this tool in a vari­ety of ways and it is real­ly pow­er­ful. This strike comes out of women being so angry and upset that Don­ald Trump won this elec­tion and real­ly think­ing that we need to take bold action to show this admin­is­tra­tion that women are not going to sit by idly while they dis­man­tle pub­lic pro­grams and take us fur­ther back. Also, mak­ing sure we stay on the offense and that this doesn’t turn into a defen­sive bat­tle. I think women are frus­trat­ed with where we are at right now. We basi­cal­ly have crumbs and we don’t want to fight like hell just to hold onto those crumbs. We want to be on the offense and make sure that we make advances for women. Advances that the Democ­rats could have made.

We need things, like nation­al free child­care, paid parental leave like they have in oth­er coun­tries. Two years in these oth­er coun­tries! A min­i­mum $15 an hour for all women, no excep­tions, all sec­tors of the work­force. We want to save Medicare and expand it to nation­al health­care and nation­al child­care. We don’t want to be pick­ing up the slack for pro­grams that are being pri­va­tized by the Repub­li­cans. Often­times, when things are no longer uni­ver­sal, they are pushed back onto the fam­i­ly and that is code for women doing this work unpaid. I think a big part of this strike is show­ing that we know what our unpaid labor is and we are not doing any more of it and we are demand­ing advances so that we don’t have to do it any­more. These should be uni­ver­sal pro­grams that cor­po­ra­tions pay into and take them off the backs of women.

SJ: You went through some of the demands of the women’s strike, but what are some oth­er things that are on the list?

EM: There has been quite an array of things. Peo­ple have talked about safe­ty, just being able to walk down the street with­out hav­ing to wor­ry about assaults. Oth­er women have talked about not hav­ing to deal with street harass­ment. Fake smiles have been a demand, which had a lot of res­o­nance, which I wasn’t expect­ing. It hit so close to home for so many women. An end to racism and big­otry of all sorts.

On our web­site, the tes­ti­monies are real­ly beau­ti­ful, real­ly deep parts of women’s lives, speak­ing open­ly, say­ing, We are not going to take this any­more and we are join­ing the move­ment in droves.” That was anoth­er thing that real­ly struck us — our Novem­ber meet­ing was like a week after the elec­tion and we had hun­dreds and hun­dreds of women show up to what was a month­ly meet­ing that nor­mal­ly has 50 peo­ple at it. We had near­ly 800 women. So many that they couldn’t fit in our space and they were lined up around the block. From that, we real­ly thought that we need to take bold action and, in doing so, we just heard such a wide range of tes­ti­monies as to why women are get­ting involved in the move­ment. It has been a learn­ing process for us, too, in terms of expand­ing our work and what the move­ment should be. It is giv­ing women a direct voice to that which I think has been pret­ty incredible.

SJ: There have been debates with­in fem­i­nism in recent years about Is the demand com­ing from below and valu­ing all women’s labor or is it about shat­ter­ing the glass ceil­ing for women at the top?” Your demands seem to be com­ing from that kind of labor fem­i­nism angle.

EM: I think if we look back from the his­to­ry of the fem­i­nist move­ment and prob­a­bly all sec­tors of the left, there are some places where the move­ment has been co-opt­ed, I would say. I do think it is impor­tant to have equal­i­ty in the work­place, but I think the fem­i­nist move­ment has had a pret­ty wide breadth. It is just ele­ments of it have been co-opt­ed and tak­en with­in the cor­po­rate cap­i­tal­ist mod­el. There are good parts of the book Lean In, but I wouldn’t call that nec­es­sar­i­ly com­ing from the fem­i­nist movement.

I do think that the fem­i­nist movement’s demands have always includ­ed nation­al child­care. It was part of NOW, the Nation­al Orga­ni­za­tion for Women’s first demands, but it is not the demand that has got­ten the most atten­tion or per­haps the most trac­tion in this coun­try because uni­ver­sal pro­grams are so hard to fight for.

As part of this upsurge in par­tic­i­pa­tion in move­ments on the left right now after this elec­tion of this hor­ri­ble man, we’re going to be try­ing to sus­tain that, keep­ing peo­ple involved, and also mak­ing sure [these demands] are part of the move­ment. Make sure that the things we real­ly need the most get the atten­tion they should. I think we are start­ing to see that with the strike, putting women’s voic­es direct­ly out there, which has been real­ly great.

SJ: On the web­site, you say some­thing about men’s involve­ment in the strike. Can you talk a lit­tle about that?

EM: We have asked men to also pledge the strike and that means doing more around the house and more of the work that women typ­i­cal­ly do, so that women can be out there and strike and ful­ly par­tic­i­pate in this polit­i­cal activism. Instead of men nec­es­sar­i­ly walk­ing off their paid jobs, maybe they are doing more of the work that their female part­ners are doing in the home, or that their sis­ters are doing to take care of their par­ents, or pick­ing up the kids. What­ev­er that means. It is putting in extra work so that women can be out there for these two days.

SJ: As you say, part of the val­ue of a strike is it frees up people’s time to do oth­er things. How do you envi­sion this strike inter­act­ing with the Women’s March and oth­er actions that are planned for Inau­gu­ra­tion Day?

EM: We see it going hand in hand with that. Women are going to be out there at the march. My friends that haven’t been polit­i­cal­ly active for the time that I have known them, they have self-orga­nized cars down to D.C. or to meet at spots in New York City for the march. My fam­i­ly in Min­neso­ta is going out. My sis­ters are going out for the first time, which has been pret­ty incred­i­ble. We see the strike as real­ly a way to add to that march. What work you are strik­ing from as you go to the march or what demands do you have as you are march­ing in what­ev­er city you are in?

We are hav­ing spe­cif­ic meet up spots and places where women have pledged to strike, in some places speak­ing out. But any­where, wher­ev­er peo­ple are in the coun­try and signed up to strike, we encour­age peo­ple to go out to the march and march with oth­er women as they are strik­ing from their work.

SJ: Obvi­ous­ly, if you are gath­er­ing pledges from peo­ple, you are gath­er­ing con­tact infor­ma­tion. Where do you see this going and is it a way to help build a nation­al orga­ni­za­tion that can then, again, take strike action or oth­er actions when, for instance, Con­gress is vot­ing on tak­ing away health­care or some­thing like that?

EM: Yes, def­i­nite­ly. It is a way for us to gath­er con­tact info, get women’s input and get their action and activism going. Then, also to be able to con­tin­ue to fight for these demands. It is not some­thing that is going to hap­pen in two days. This is a strong, bold action. We are send­ing a mes­sage of what women are will­ing to do and how far they are will­ing to go on Day 1 of this admin­is­tra­tion. But, it is going to take a lot more work, a lot more meet­ings, a lot more activism in between meet­ings, and build­ing to real­ly win the things that we need to be free.

This is build­ing that in an orga­nized way. Hav­ing con­tact infor­ma­tion, hav­ing meet­ings in local cities, start­ing to build real move­ment, and mak­ing this long-last­ing and per­sis­tent so that the ener­gy that we have right now doesn’t fade as we go into sev­er­al months after this. We are plan­ning imme­di­ate­ly after the strike, just in con­crete terms, to sur­vey women about how it went and find out what parts of the orga­ni­za­tion they might want to get involved in after­wards, which one of the demands called to them and how they want to par­tic­i­pate in that.

SJ: Your day job is in the labor move­ment. Has there been inter­est in this strike from orga­nized labor? From groups with­in orga­nized labor? Any out­reach on that front?

EM: It is inter­est­ing that sev­er­al of the women who are orga­niz­ing the strike are also union orga­niz­ers. I do think we have tak­en some of the lessons from our paid work and put [them] into the fem­i­nist move­ments. In that way, I do think the labor move­ment is work­ing with us and has been adding to the fem­i­nist move­ment. We haven’t had unions nec­es­sar­i­ly sign on or send out the strike pledge. But, we have def­i­nite­ly had a lot of women speak about their union activism as they pledge to strike.

I think the con­scious­ness is affect­ing the mil­i­tan­cy. On our strike web­site and in our meet­ings we have talked about how women at Wal­mart, women in the fast food indus­try have been strik­ing for years and tak­ing bold action and the impact that it has had on their work­ing con­di­tions and on the entire coun­try in terms of rais­ing the min­i­mum wage and rais­ing their con­scious­ness. I think it has had impact on us even call­ing the strike.

Hope­ful­ly, what we are strik­ing from — like this unpaid work that we are talk­ing about, all of the things we do to pick up the slack — and what we are strik­ing for, like paid parental leave, uni­ver­sal health­care, have an impact on the labor move­ment and what they are fight­ing for. I do think that the fem­i­nist move­ment and the labor move­ment need to be work­ing togeth­er in a clos­er way. Also, hope­ful­ly, rais­ing the con­scious­ness of women that are in unions and that are start­ing to be orga­nized into unions will have an effect on the demands that are being brought to the table, or what unions are fight­ing for polit­i­cal­ly. It needs to go into the homes, as well, and a lot of the unpaid work and slack that we pick up as women.

SJ: It is inter­est­ing because this elec­tion sea­son revolved around jobs, but it revolved around, many times, cer­tain kinds of jobs. It revolved around fac­to­ry jobs at the Car­ri­er plant or things like that. The idea that jobs have been out­sourced. Where­as, this strike is sort of forc­ing atten­tion back on work that is very hard to out­source. A lot of the work women do, you can’t send it to China.

EM: You can’t send it to Chi­na and soci­ety wouldn’t run if it wasn’t being done. It is the invis­i­ble work of What hap­pens at 3 o’clock when school is over?” Women are the ones going in and out of the work­force and not get­ting rais­es and not get­ting pro­mot­ed or maybe los­ing their jobs because they have to [take care of chil­dren]. That is work, real work, that we are doing to make soci­ety run, to raise the next gen­er­a­tion of peo­ple that will be in the work­force … So, the fact that isn’t being seen as a con­tri­bu­tion to soci­ety and some­thing that soci­ety should pay into, is some­thing that needs to change. That is work that we need to start look­ing at and start look­ing at in a way that the labor move­ment has an impact on.

SJ: I remem­ber see­ing a Don­ald Trump ad with Ivan­ka Trump say­ing that Don­ald Trump was going to give us paid fam­i­ly leave. Some of these ideas are out there to the point where Don­ald Trump felt the need to try to co-opt them. What do you think the odds are for actu­al­ly push­ing for some of these things even under a Trump administration?

EM: I have no rea­son to think that any of this will be any eas­i­er under a Trump admin­is­tra­tion. I think that it is exact­ly what you are say­ing, a co-option of what we have been call­ing for. The fact that we have made these ideas so pop­u­lar and also that peo­ple are at a break­ing point, not just in the U.S., but all across the world. I think that is why we are see­ing this rise in pop­ulism and peo­ple demand­ing a real change and break from what we nor­mal­ly see.

I think it is going to be hard­er, much hard­er, to fight under Trump. It is going to be a real bat­tle, but I don’t think that means that we should stop fight­ing. I think that we could raise a lot of con­scious­ness, put a lot of women in the street, a lot of peo­ple in the street. I hope that we can change what our move­ments are fight­ing for and fight in a deep­er, broad­er way, and that will go beyond just the next elec­tion cycle.

I do think that we need to build an inde­pen­dent move­ment like that, that is not focused sole­ly on elect­ing the next Demo­c­rat, but is focused on build­ing a move­ment that the elect­ed offi­cials real­ly feel account­able to, no mat­ter what par­ty they are in. I think it is going to be hard­er to do under a Trump admin­is­tra­tion, because I think there is going to be a lot of repres­sion. But, I think what we are see­ing, in terms of this upswell of peo­ple being involved, is one bright side. I think if we can real­ly grab onto that and get peo­ple involved in a long-term way, a per­sis­tent way that has polit­i­cal edu­ca­tion and is par­tic­i­pa­to­ry and gets peo­ple involved in real­ly long-term ways that we can make some­thing big and some­thing real and that we can win these pro­grams. I do have hope in that way.

SJ: Any­thing else peo­ple should know about the women’s strike?

EM: You can sign up to strike at www​.wom​en​strike​.org. We are still col­lect­ing pledges and we hope that folks sign up to strike and list what you are strik­ing from and add to our list of demands and get involved local­ly in your Women’s March.

Inter­views for Resis­tance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assis­tance from Lau­ra Feuille­bois and sup­port from the Nation Insti­tute. It is also avail­able as a podcast. 

Sarah Jaffe is a for­mer staff writer at In These Times and author of Nec­es­sary Trou­ble: Amer­i­cans in Revolt , which Robin D.G. Kel­ley called The most com­pelling social and polit­i­cal por­trait of our age.” You can fol­low her on Twit­ter @sarahljaffe.
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