Women workers’ answer to COVID: Capitalism caused the crisis, workers can solve it!

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The global economy sat on a shaky wall.
Along came COVID, and it had a great fall.
All of Morrison’s finance and industry men
Can’t put the economy back together again.
(in memory of Humpty Dumpty)

Australia’s Morrison government responded to the emergency with a budget that will bolster the fragile fortunes of the rich, at the expense of the poor, and an industrial relations bill that would turn workers into a casualised slave labour force.

Meanwhile, during Victoria’s hard lockdown, working women held fortnightly online brainstorms initiated by Radical Women, entitled COVID, capitalism and how to fix this mess. The women gathering around the zoom “table” came from industries worst hit by the pandemic — retail and hospitality, early childhood and higher education, manufacturing and public sectors. Some lost jobs or were struggling to keep hours, which the ACTU reports is 21% of the female workforce. Others were in full-time positions, exhausted by their stressful daily workloads. All this in addition to domestic and, for some, caring responsibilities. Those on visas brought their first-hand perspectives as immigrant workers surviving without basic entitlements or benefits. 

All came to share experiences but also explore and test out answers. In working groups, they collected data and international examples. Everything coalesced into four demands, which concretely address what workers need to turn this catastrophe around. It offers a perspective from the bottom — from those worst exploited and affected — that points everyone’s eyes upward to lasting and practical solutions. 

On 8 December, they launched a statement of demands, Women workers’ answer to COVID: Capitalism caused the crisis, workers can solve it! The demands address the urgency of the crisis: (1) shorten the working week with no reduction in pay, making all jobs permanent with full entitlements, (2) nationalise all essential industries and transfer control to the workers who run them, (3) a comfortable, liveable income for everyone, regardless of visa status and (4) end working class deprivation by making rich corporations pay taxes. 

These demands go to the heart of the problem facing working people. We’re seeing that capitalism will go to any lengths to extract profit from our hard labour. For women, this is not only the insecure, undervalued work we’re herded into. It’s also the unpaid domestic and caring work we perform, looking after capital’s most essential investment: workers. The most exploited labour of women and non-citizen immigrants is now becoming the norm for all workers. 

The statement says, “While not exhaustive, [these demands] assert our collective strength as workers who run the industries and people who make up this society.” It’s time to take the offensive.

Out of this, a campaign began. Workers Organising to Win! (WOW!) is taking the demands into our unions and communities to mobilise a labour-community fightback from the ground up. Building a union movement that collaborates with working class communities and that is member-controlled and combative is vital to this. The statement contains talking points on the benefits of each demand and what it would look like.

This true story from North China’s Shaanxi Province characterises the potential power now in workers’ hands. Years ago, a Beijing newspaper reported the incredible feat of a grandmother, 77 years old and barely able to walk. While gathering herbs with her grandchildren on a mountainside, a huge leopard attacked, sinking its teeth into her arm. She grabbed the animal by the ears, fought it off and beat it to death. She explained to the dumbfounded reporter, “Whenever you’re cornered, the only way out is to fight.” (with thanks to Merle Woo, San Francisco poet and Radical Women leader)

To get involved, contact WOW! at womenworkers.wow@gmail.com 

Debbie and Dani are both WOW! stalwarts and members of the United Workers Union.

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