Our Emancipation & Liberation blog is posting our annual tribute to International Women’s Day. There are three articles. The first is by Susan Dorazio, a committed socialist feminist and member of the IWW, writes about the struggles of women care workers in the USA and Scotland. The second and third written by J. M. Thorn, come from the new March 2012 Socialist Democracy (Ireland) bulletin, dealing with the reactionary threats to the Marie Stopes clinic in Belfast, and the Irish Dail ‘public ‘apology’ for the horrors of the Catholic Church run Magdalene laundries.
1. WHEN CHILD CARE WORKERS FOUGHT BACK: A HISTORY TO BE PROUD OF, LESSONS TO BE LEARNED, AND A TRIBUTE TO INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S DAY
In the first decade of the 20th Century, agitation by women in the industrial parts of the world for their civil rights and for their rights as workers was gaining momentum. Inspired by this increased militancy – and by the organizing in 1909 of National Woman’s Day by the Woman’s National Committee of the Socialist Party of America – the Women’s Congress of the Second International, meeting in Copenhagen in 1910, approved the call by German Socialist Clara Zetkin and other delegates to create a Women’s Day to foster international solidarity among socialist women.
In contrast to the liberal movements for woman’s suffrage and workers’ rights, and in opposition to war and social injustice, International Women’s Day would be firmly placed in the context of the global capitalist system, one that basically refuses to recognize, let alone heed, the needs and rights of women.
In the last decade of the 20th Century, another reawakening, also focusing on workers’ rights in the context of the range of women’s roles in society, was occurring in the United States. For the better part of the 1990’s, hundreds of child care workers, including myself, took part in a grassroots project called the Worthy Wage Campaign. Through fact-finding, consciousness raising, marches, rallies, street festivals, letter-writing, and media contact – and under the banner of ‘Rights, Raises, and Respect’ – we confronted what was called the staffing crisis, and were determined to reverse it. Of immediate concern was the revolving door of miserably-paid child care workers and the effect this had on children and families.
As this phenomenon started getting sorted out through data from centers and interviews with workers, certain facts became clear. First and foremost was that our low wages and lack of benefits and good working conditions were subsidizing the cost of child care, either to ‘ease the burden’ on parents if there were fees to pay, or on government whose spending priorities invariably put human services such as child care at the bottom of the list.
As we got deeper into our understanding of the various crises in child care many of us started to understand their systemic nature and the ways workers, families, and community members were getting manipulated and pitted against each other. We would see that this was serving to derail us from taking the kind of collective action that would really challenge and transform capitalism, the root cause of the crises that riddled the care and education sectors.
To find allies, some of us Worthy Wage campaigners worked hard to get the rights of child care workers, families, and children on the agenda of human rights, social justice, and radical labour groups. At the same time, those of us affiliated with the IWW, socialist organisations, and/or women’s rights/liberation projects did the reverse: i.e., encouraged child care workers to get involved with the broader movement for social change, since our issues were so often the same. I had what I considered the extra advantage of being a socialist feminist in an overwhelmingly-female workforce. This helped me see my experiences as a child care worker from both a class and a gender perspective. Others, also, came to appreciate the fact that patriarchy and misogyny had a lot to do with our low pay, low status, and tendency to undervalue ourselves.
Unfortunately, liberal politics won out, and by 2002, the Worthy Wage Campaign was now headquartered in Washington, D.C., renamed the Center for the Child Care Workforce, and officially a project of the mainstream American Federation of Teachers Educational Fund. Empowerment for radical change of the relationship between workers, families, and communities – based on full government funding for good wages and benefits, low child-staff ratios, high quality facilities, support services, and free tuition – had become a vague reference to a “well-educated” workforce, receiving “better compensation, and a “voice” in their workplace.
Meanwhile, in Scotland, the public sector nursery nurses, members of Unison, were getting fed up with government stone-walling on their own child care crisis. The ruse of so-called professionalism that had undermined the militancy of the Worthy Wage Campaign was playing itself out in Scotland in the form of expanded job descriptions but no pay increases for the added responsibilities. In fact, there had been no salary review since 1988 in any of the Scottish councils in charge of overseeing the nurseries.
By the end of 2003, between 4,000 and 5,000 nursery nurses, disgusted by the intransigence of both the councils and COSLA (Convention of Scottish Local Authorities) had voted for strike action that led to a series of regional one or two-day strikes, accompanied by rallies and demonstrations. And by March 1st, 2004, the nursery nurses were ready to engage in an all-out, indefinite, strike for a national settlement on pay raises in line with their current job requirements and the importance of their work.
Unfortunately, but predictably, the standard business-union tactics of Unison not only failed to sufficiently support solidarity among the nursery nurses but failed to foster links between the nursery nurses and workers in other sectors, and between the nurses and their centers’ families and communities when more picket support and public outcry might well have changed the strike’s outcome.
Instead, the rallying cry for a national settlement – basic to the goal of equal pay for equal work, and so vital to enabling the nursery nurses to maintain their resolve – was dropped by Unison based on a pledge of a national review of pay and working conditions at some point in the future. This led to significant discrepancies between the pay settlements negotiated between the union and individual councils and, undoubtedly, to demoralization among the workers when the 12-week strike ended.
Fast forward to London at the end of January 2013, when early years minister, Elizabeth Truss, proposed changes to child-staff ratios in child care centers in England, as well as the expansion of education requirements for the workers. In child care and other human service sectors this strategy usually works particularly well because it employs the mythology of success through individual effort and perseverance, and platitudes about the importance of our work, while exploiting the workers’ collective dedication and compassion. At the same time, it promises families and tax payers that with one stroke of administrative genius, child care (or whatever) will be ‘cost-effective’ and thus less burdensome.
This is a sham, and workers, families, and community activists need to say so via direct and coordinated actions. Child care workers and supporters must hammer away at the fact that wages, benefits, staffing ratios, appreciation of our efforts, and recognition and support of our skills and interests are prime determinants of quality child care– and none of these factors should or need to get ignored.
For those of us who participated in the Worthy Wage Campaign in the U.S. or the nursery nurses strike in Scotland, the ridiculous atomizing of quality child care that Truss’s proposal represents is an all-too-familiar tactic for diverting attention from those responsible for the wholly inadequate public funding of social services by cleverly focusing attention on the blameless.
Liz Truss and her ilk need to be told that we won’t stand for their continual trade-off schemes, such as further education and training as a pre-condition for good wages and working conditions. By this time, we should know that quality care and quality jobs cannot be an either/or proposition. Ways must be found to enable them to occur simultaneously, and with the rights, needs, and final say of the staff at the core of this planning.
By turning the spotlight, and turning up the heat, on purposely convoluted pseudo-solutions to serious social problems, and on the rapid erosion of the public sector leading to the withering of social services, we will surely advance the struggle for the global unity of the working class.
Furthermore, by remembering the courage and commitment of such women workers as the Worthy Wage campaigners in the U.S. and the striking nursery nurses in Scotland– acting on behalf of their rights and those of all women and all workers– we honor the founders, and perpetuate the meaning, of International Women’s Day in the best way possible.
Susan Dorazio, Glasgow, March 2013
2. ORANGE AND GREEN BIGOTS UNITE IN OPPOSITION TO MARIE STOPES CLINIC
There is a widely promoted perspective which holds that the peace process, and the political structures it created, has ushered in a new more liberal era in Northern Ireland. However, the threadbare nature of such claims is exposed by events that show the politics of the North to be as reactionary as they have ever even been. For the most part these events, such as the recent loyalist flag protests, relate to the persistence of sectarianism. But other issues, not necessarily related to community divisions, also serve to highlight a broader reaction.
One of the most important of these issues is abortion. And this has been ignited once again by the opening of a Marie Stopes clinic in Belfast. It is the first abortion clinic on the island of the Ireland, carrying out chemically induced abortions for women who are up to nine weeks pregnant. Such procedures fall within the existing legal framework in Northern Ireland which allows for abortions up to twelve weeks if a woman’s life is under threat. While the laws are much more restrictive than those in Britain abortion is legal in the North. Indeed, every year there are forty to fifty abortions carried out within the NHS. In addition, it is estimated that 1,000 women from the north travel annually to Britain for abortions.
Despite the Marie Stopes organisation’s strict adherence to the law and willingness to engage with health authorities the opening of its Belfast clinic has provoked a furious response from anti-abortion groups and local political parties. The hostility in the Assembly was almost unanimous with only one its 108 members, the Alliance’s Anna Lo, expressing support. The response at the level of the executive was a mixture of feigned ignorance and vague threats. In a statement to MLAs the DUP health minister expressed surprise at the opening (despite his Department receiving nine months prior notice) and then threatened to send in the police to investigate the clinic, warning medical staff that they were operating in a “legal minefield” and if found to have broken the law could end up with life sentences. While other parties may have more measured in terms of rhetoric their opposition to abortion wasn’t any less implacable. SDLP members spoke sanctimoniously about “maximum com-passion” for women while still denying them choice. Typically Sinn Fein tried to point in two directions – opposing abortion while acknowledging in certain (undefined) circumstances a woman could opt for a termination. They also made some snide comments about Marie Stopes being a private healthcare provider, which in the light of recent reports of Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams receiving treatment at a private clinic in the US, appear even more hypocritical and irrelevant now than they did at the time.
The political opposition to Marie Stopes did not just come from politicians but also from state officials. Probably the most active intervention was by the attorney general John Larkin. In a letter to the Assembly’s justice committee he accused the clinic of seeking a change in the abortion law. He urged the committee to lunch an investigation into the facility and also suggested that he could assist in the interrogation of witnesses and the issuing of injunctions. Larkin claimed that he was acting as “Guardian of the Rule of Law” but clearly such activism went well beyond his primary role as legal adviser to the executive. These proposals would have effectively seen Marie Stopes officials put on trial before a grand jury with Larkin as chief prosecutor. Whilst it did not transpire such a scenario conjures up proceedings more reminiscent of the Salem witch-hunts than a democratic chamber. However, when we consider Larkin’s extreme anti-abortion views we get an understanding how such proposals could get an airing. In comments were made in a May 2008 radio discussion, six months before he was appointed Attorney General, Larkin compared abortion to “putting a bullet in the head of the child two days after it’s born.” That such a view was not a barrier to his appointment and that Robinson and McGuinness could endorse his activism against Marie Stopes indicates where the political class stand on the issue of abortion. While they may pose as upholders of the law (which allows for abortion in limited circumstances) they are in reality for a total ban.
Unlike politicians anti-abortion activists feel no need to make gestures toward legality and their uncompromising opposition was on full display at a demonstration to coincide with the opening of the Belfast clinic. What was notable about this demonstration was that it embraced the whole range of right wing opinion both unionist and nationalist, Catholic and Protestant. Those present included former BNP fundraiser and UK Life League supporter Jim Dowson who declared that Marie Stopes “has brought communities here together.” (This statement was particularly ironic considering Dowson’s later prominence as an organiser of loyalist flag protests.) He was joined by Daire Fitzgerald of the Catholic Solidarity movement and by Bernadette Smyth of the pressure group Precious Life who demanded that “the heads of government run Marie Stopes out of Northern Ireland.” The opposition to Marie Stopes was also endorsed by the hierarchy of the Catholic Church with Bishop Donal McKeown declaring that “we are in the middle of a struggle for the soul of Northern Ireland.”
Despite the rhetoric of politicians and church leaders it is questionable whether their implacable opposition to abortion is reflective of the broader population. For example, the initial demonstration against the Marie Stopes clinic failed to mobilise the expected numbers despite extensive advertising. Subsequent pickets of the clinic have drawn only a handful of people. Public opinion is also shifting with recent surveys showing significant support for abortion in the cases of rape and life threatening conditions.
However, it would be a mistake to rely on public opinion or the law for the achievement of reproductive rights. The anti-abortion position continues to have a stranglehold on the political system. And while the establishment of an abortion clinic in Belfast is an advance for women throughout Ireland the determination of politicians and religious groups to halt even its limited services makes its existence precarious.
What’s needed to defend this small advance and to push for more is the creation of a movement that takes up the fight not only against women’s oppression but against all forms of oppression. This requires an orientation towards the working class and the compass of socialist politics.
3. MAGDALENE – WHEN “SORRY” ISN’T ANYWHERE NEAR ENOUGH
On Tuesday 19 February, his voice choking with emotion, Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny rose in the Dail to formally apologize to the Magdalene women – generations of women and girls imprisoned in laundries run by Catholic Nuns. The women acted as slave labour. Were forced to work in silence and subject to physical and mental abuse.
The apology led to a mood of national celebration. Dark days had been left behind. We were all moving on. The apology was the declaration of a new modernist Ireland.
Yet there was much to question. It took the government over a fortnight after the publication of the enquiry to make the apology. Issues of compensation were cloaked in ambiguity.
The enquiry was chaired by Martin McAleese, consort of a former President and regarded as a safe pair of hands by both the Catholic church and the Irish state.
It was an investigation limited in resources and in the breadth of its remit, being restricted to the issue of state collusion in the running of the institutions. What it actually did was to step in and out of its formal remit, drawing attention to the numbers sent to the laundries by their own families and thus diluting the role of the church and the collusion of the state.
Responsibility is spread across society and culture. Time itself is deemed to have resolved the issue.
Yet the reality is very simple. Ireland was, and still remains, a confessional state where the Catholic church has a special position and where many state functions were put into its hands. The extent to which families referred their own daughters is a function of church control inside the family, of extreme poverty, and of the extreme misogyny and sexual repression fostered by church and state. Class hatred separated the Nuns from their charges. A minor voice in the current debate is that of social workers pointing out that, while the laundries have gone, the lack of care for disabled, neglected or defiant girls has changed little.
In Ireland political and class analysis has been replaced by the ideology of conflict resolution. The claim is that apology will bring emotional closure and allow everyone to move on.
In the real world of class struggle many giant tasks remain to be accomplished: the separation of church and state, the establishment of woman’s rights, the independent organization of women.
All rest on one mighty task – the self-organization of the working class around the struggle for a socialist society.
J M Thorne