Why must women lead the unions into a General Strike? Because we can!

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One of my most worn and treasured T-shirts is from my union, the Australian Services Union. It’s hot pink with the message, “Strong unions need women.” If ever women were needed to put some kick into the union movement, it’s now! Now, when Howard’s WorkChoices law is being used with ever-greater viciousness. The kick needs to be applied to the top union officials, who want to turn the campaign against the laws into yet another campaign to elect Labor at the next poll.

The primary purpose of WorkChoices is to crush unionism, making it easy for corporate capital to reduce workers’ pay and conditions as much as necessary for profit to thrive. Third world conditions have already set a miserably low benchmark, which has no bottom limit. Voting for the ALP won’t stop the employers’ race to cut wages and conditions, but a militant strike campaign will.

The greatest profit is generated from below, where the women are! Working women in Australia have never enjoyed the fruits of their labour, not even the pips. Women make up 46% of Australia’s workforce. As one of most sex-segregated in the world, the Australian labour market channels most women into the lowest paid, casual jobs. These are overwhelmingly the service industries: mainly hospitality, retail, health and the community sector — occupations that also demand so much of Australia’s unpaid overtime!

One in three women work without paid sick leave, annual holiday leave, and paid public holiday entitlements or job security. More than 70% of part-time workers are women. In 2004, women comprised more than 60% of people on the minimum wage. About 75% of workers earning less than $600 per week were female. Migrant women, who make up three-quarters of the country’s low-paid, are joined at the bottom by Indigenous women, young women and women in non-unionised workplaces.

Just over 60% of women 15-44 years old with dependent children work. Almost 50% of these women have children aged under four. An Australian Institute of Family Studies survey found that 82% of mothers rely on relatives for childcare — no wonder, given that the cost of childcare rose to five times the Consumer Price Index from July 2004 to July 2005 alone and waiting lists are years long! Seven percent of workplace agreements have paid maternity leave, even then averaging only seven weeks. And this was before WorkChoices!

Unpaid and underpaid labour. A woman’s traditional role in the capitalist economy is to care for generations of workers. Her job is to keep them in good working condition, physically and psychologically. She cooks and cleans for them, and she coddles them when they’re sick and stressed. She also gets them to work on time. She does all of this free, at no cost to the boss who reaps the benefit of their, and her, labour. The added value she gives to the economy is her skills in the workforce, which come cheap. The occupations open to her are an extension of her domestic services: hospitality, nursing, teaching and cleaning to community support and customer relations. If this labour is available free at home, then it doesn’t demand much on the market. Capitalism couldn’t survive without her!

These sectors have relied heavily on the Award system because of the protections it has provided low-paid workers in penalty rates and shift allowances. Penalty rates, for example, constitute 40-60% of a nurse’s earnings. Yet of the Australian Workplace Agreements (AWAs, or individual contracts) brought in so far, 63% have wiped out penalty rates. Shift allowances disappeared from 52%, extra pay loading for annual leave was removed from 64% and 40% abolished paid public holidays.

Last year, a 15-year-old woman working for Bakers Delight in South Australia was frog-marched out of her workplace because she complained about the low pay: the franchise was paying its employees 25% less than the State award. The mostly young staff at Krispy Kreme was heavily pressured to sign AWAs, which would have removed their penalty rates, massively cutting their take-home pay. The WorkChoices regime now emboldens employers who have been waiting for the go-ahead to extract everything they can from their workers.

Social insecurity. The Howard Government’s Welfare-to-Work legislation, which preceded WorkChoices, is a double whammy for recipients of the Parenting Payment or the Disability Support Pension. Most sole parents receiving the Centrelink benefit are women. Just before WorkChoices was enacted, the Howard’s Welfare-to-Work laws came into force. From July 1 this year, people on disability support assessed as capable of working 15 hours a week and single parents, once their youngest child reaches school age, are being removed from the pension to the more stringent unemployment benefit, Newstart. They have to seek up to 15 hours’ paid work per week or be penalised with a non-payment period of eight weeks. Twenty percent of women have a disability, and the most sole parents on welfare are female. The shift to Newstart will mean a pay cut of at least $25 a week. For those in part-time work, the impact will be worse. Lower income-free thresholds and higher reductions for every dollar earned — added to the costs of working, such as transport, childcare and clothing — will mean that the poorest people will get no financial benefit from working. But the boss will.

Single mothers and people with disabilities are being used as the bosses’ leverage to reduce all workers’ wages to unliveable levels.

The only way out… The title of a poem by Merle Woo, Radical Women member and teacher from San Francisco, also offers choice advice: “Whenever you’re cornered, the only way out is to fight.” This is what Qi Deying, a 77-year-old woman from North China, was quoted as saying in a Beijing newspaper. Qi was attacked by a huge leopard, which sank its teeth into her arm. She grabbed the leopard by its ears and forced it to the ground. Locked in combat, they rolled down a mountainside, bouncing off rocks into a wheat field. Her grandchildren saw what was happening and leapt to her defence. Together, they beat the leopard to death.

There’s nothing more inspirational than need and knowing what we can achieve. The messages of my union T-shirt and Merle’s poem do inspire! They’re backed up by so much history — such as the garment workers in New York on March 8 almost a century ago, whose strike inspired the founding of International Women’s Day. Out of the necessities of war and poverty, Russian women textile workers ignited the world’s first socialist revolution on that day in 1917.

Women workers have the special capacity to connect up industrial and social struggles because of the multiple burdens that this society places upon them. Reproductive choice, welfare rights and industrial entitlements are inseparable. Juggling child rearing and a job, figuring out when or whether to have children without paid maternity leave or a decent, secure income or working for nix just to hang onto a welfare payment are daily battles. And to be the “wrong” race or sexuality makes it much harder. Winning these rights is a question of urgency.

Let’s do it! Waiting for Labor gets women nowhere. The corporate teeth are in our collective arm, and we’re cornered. Let’s shake up our unions and grab the beast by the ears. Let’s take on WorkChoices, reproductive rights and Welfare-to-Work together. To do this means preparing to break the law and organising general strike action for as long as it takes. Nothing short of workers using their collective power to stop production will bring an end to this predatory industrial and welfare regime. France recently showed the world what is possible. Women have the greatest reason to do what’s necessary to bury Howard’s WorkChoices. The union movement needs us!

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