Born from the strike of women garment workers in capitalism’s early and brutal ascendancy, International Women’s Day (IWD) stands alongside May Day as a red letter date in workers’ global resistance.
On 8 March 1908, thousands of mostly immigrant striking women marched through New York City. They were demanding better pay and the end to the grueling and dangerous conditions, which included long hours and sexual harassment. After three months on strike, they won.
The following year, the Socialist Party of America organised the first National Women’s Day, bringing together thousands of women workers in New York City and across the country “to fight, to struggle, to right the wrong,” as one banner declared. In 1910 the second International Conference of Socialist Working Women, held in Copenhagen, established International Women’s Day to mark the victorious garment workers’ strike and launch a campaign for women’s right to vote — giving women’s militancy more political force.
On 8 March 1911, a million women took the streets throughout Europe to demand their rights. In 1913 and 1914, they rallied against the oncoming imperialist war. On IWD 1917 in Russia, women textile workers in Petrograd struck for “Peace, Land and Bread,” bringing other workers with them. Five days later Czardom collapsed, and within that year Russian workers, led by the Bolshevik Party, brought the first, yet to be finished, socialist revolution to the world.
Australia’s first IWD was held in Sydney, in 1928. With a global Depression looming, unemployment was rising and industrial disputes over cuts to wage and conditions were intense. This IWD called for equal pay, an 8-hour day for shop workers, the end to piecework, a basic wage for the unemployed and annual holiday on full pay.
Women are now nearly half of workforces throughout the world. Female workers experience the worst of what capitalism dishes out to its wage slaves — from sexual abuse to treacherous conditions and unequal pay. Still the mainspring of the family, they bring this social awareness into the workplace. They’ve pushed organised labour beyond “bread and butter” demands by bringing their needs into the movement — childcare, education, healthcare, discrimination, violence against women and global issues like war and international exploitation. This is especially true of women who are First Nation, immigrant, of colour, queer, trans and disabled.
In the past two years, rank-and-file women workers have driven union calls across Europe and Latin America for strikes on IWD. The slogan, “Non una di meno” (“Not one less,” meaning that we must not lose another woman to violence) originated in Argentina and is now global. Italy’s IWD strike in 2018 affected air, rail, road and public transport across the country. This year in Mexico, where 10 women are murdered every day, IWD’s call is for a general strike against femicide and gender violence.
In March 2019, 111 years after the garment sisters’ victory, Chemist Warehouse workers struck over similar conditions and demands. Immigrant women were prominent leaders on the 24/7 picket lines and after just 16 days, they won. This was an inspiring reminder that “strong unions need women,” as the union slogan says.
Corporates can splash their branding of purple, green and white across computer screens and elaborate luncheon celebrations all they want, but they can’t co-opt this day. International Women’s Day belongs to women workers and our unions. And our well-organised resistance won’t stop until we toss our chains.