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The cleaners’ struggle at the London School of Economics (LSE) had a resounding effect on the radical and trade union left. How could it not? The cleaners seemed to reverse history, beating the tide of precarity and outsourcing ‘at a time of stigmatization of migrant workers and weakening of trade unions’.1 After ten months of campaigning with United Voices of the World (UVW) – including seven strike days, several demonstrations, and two occupations – the cleaners not only achieved their demands of equal terms and conditions with in-house staff, but forced the LSE to employ them directly.
The struggle was spectacular, in every sense of the word. Black, migrant, precarious workers rebelled against exploitation and invisibility in the belly of the neoliberal beast. It was their turn to speak – and they did so outside of Unison and the official trade union recognition agreement. The student-run Justice for Cleaners campaign helped to organise this spectacle, which publicly shamed the university and disrupted its day-to-day functioning. This was the winning tactic. But however many solidarity breakfasts we organised, however long we spent on the picket line, we maintained a feeling of cluelessness. This turned into an awareness that the picket line – the spectacle – was only half of the story.
The claim that strikes are reflections of privilege is totally disconnected from the history of women’s labor organizing in the US. by Kate Aronoff
In discussing the historical precedents for Wednesday’s strike, several writers have pointed to recent actions abroad — like those in Iceland and Poland — and a 1970 women’s strike for equality in the workplace, organized by America’s National Organization for Women. American history, however, is rife with examples of women striking as workers, at considerable risk to their lives and livelihoods. Following mining and the building trades, for instance, the textile industry — staffed almost entirely by women — was the third most strike-prone industry in the country in the early 20th century. Here are just a few examples of women who walked off the job.
A massive, nationwide strike caused major disruption to India’s economy on 2 September, popularised as Bharat Bandh (literally ‘India closed’ in Hindi/Sanskrit). Some unions have claimed this was the largest general strike in history, with up to 150 million workers involved and costs to business of around $US 2.7 billion.
A significant feature of these strikes was the involvement of thousands of temporary workers, very few of whom have representation or support from trade unions. Another important strike took place recently in Bengaluru (Bangalore) where up to 400,000 workers emptied the city’s garments factories and flooded the streets in response to government changes to state pensions (the Provident Fund or PF). Key features of this strike included its primarily ‘wildcat’ character—local CTUOs were taken by surprise, despite having organised their own, much smaller response to the changes—and that the strikers were overwhelmingly women. This massive protest succeeded in deferring the Modi government’s plans.
Given that women tend to work outside the male-dominated structures of most trade unions, another highly significant development occurred in the tea plantations of Munnar in Kerala in September 2015, when female plantation workers established a new women migrant-led union—Pembila Urumai (‘Unity of Women’ in Tamil)—to break with male-dominated unions that had virtually ignored their interests.
These days talk of class in NZ is often greeted with groans. While this is not hard to understand when it comes from the right, it is often found on the left as well as many leftists have shifted …
Neoliberalism has faced intense scrutiny over the years from Trade Unionists and Marxists alike for its exploitation of workers and insistence of an economic ‘trickle down’ effect that has yet to materialise. When you look closer, however, another troubling aspect of this industry emerges. Again and again, it seems to be women who are left behind by this system. In many countries in the global South, women are drawn into employment in the lowest paid and most undervalued work in the global economy at the end of Global Commodity Chains in the manufacturing, fresh produce and garment industries.
Zoe Kemp analyses the plight of female workers in the Bangladeshi textile sector.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the garment industry of Bangladesh, an industry cited by many as demonstrative of the “success” of neoliberalism through its fast growth and increased employment opportunities for women.
This exploitation presents itself in multiple ways. To start with, the majority of women work without a contract, and for those with a contract, they are usually short-term or temporary (Oxfam 2004: 5). Women workers are seen as expendable by their employers; easily replaced by a cohort of women ‘desperate’ for work no matter how insecure it may be. Not only is this exploitative in its own right, but it also severely limits women’s abilities to fight harassment or campaign for better conditions in the workplace out of fear that any protest will lead to their losing their job.
At the end of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century, industrial workers in the United States grew dissatisfied with the harsh working conditions and unfair treatment they faced. Irish American schoolteacher Mary Harris “Mother” Jones rose to prominence as an outspoken advocate for worker’s rights and led hundreds of strikes for the rights of miners, railway workers, and children. Her fiery speeches and tenacious personality inspired a new age of progressive activists and left behind a legacy of legislative labor reform. Megan Murphy, a student at Merrimack High School in Merrimack, NH, won the Gold Medal and $1,000 prize in the American Labor History category for her web site The Leadership and Legacy of Mother Jones and her Fight for Workers’ Rights.