‘The strike is a weapon of love’:
APWLD’s #GlobalStrike side event at the 61st Commission on the Status of Women
by Sanam Amin
On 22 March, 2017, APWLD hosted a side event at the 61st Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) in New York, titled ‘Confronting Crises With Solidarity: Escalating Global Strikes.’ It followed two years after our Labour Programme focal person, Nazma Akter, president of the Sommilito Garments Shomik Federation in Bangladesh, called for a global strike while speaking at the People’s General Assembly.
APWLD’s decision to work towards a global strike reflects our analysis that democratic systems are failing in our region, and that the strike is the instrument left for us to call for Development Justice. Our event was timely, against the backdrop of an increasingly repressive CSW where right-wing groups were gaining ground, and just two weeks after the global ‘Day Without a Woman’ strike marking International Women’s Day.
Our speakers included Nazma Akter and Daisy Arago, who are APWLD’s Labour Programme focal persons. Daisy is also executive director of the Centre for Trade Union and Human Rights (CTUHR). Guest speakers were Verónica Montúfar, gender equality officer project coordinator for Public Services International (PSI) and Paulina Davis, vice chair of the New York chapter of National Women’s Liberation (NWL). APWLD regional coordinator Kate Lappin facilitated and spoke about the history of strikes that have resulted in change, as captured in our history of strike slides.
All five speakers shared their experiences in being part of protests, joining unions and realising that the injustices faced by workers around the world are shared injustices.
Verónica Montúfar from Public Services International
Verónica Montúfar began by asking who in the audience had been part of a strike, explaining that she is linking feminism with unionism, and feminism with all the issues of the working class. “Strike is about power. The strike is power, but collective power. It is the strongest weapon of workers. It is a weapon of love. What are the profound values with which the strike deals with? First of all, hope: there is a desire for change; there is a conviction that change can happen. Second, direct democracy: there is no political mediation when people go to strike. People decide directly to go to strike. They do not transfer their power to others. They are not delegates – everyone is a part, takes part, makes a decision. People stand on their own, but in common. Third, solidarity, and building the common: It is not in self-interest; it is in the interest of all. When a strike is happening, the best feelings and practices of human beings emerge, like cooperation, sharing, caring, and unity. And fourth, I think the strongest one, is transformation, change: the strike allows us to dream, to design the world in which we want to live and fight for.”
“That is why corporate power, state power, employers’ power fear strikes. They fear strikes not only because of its collective force to stop production. They fear strikes because of its power to transform human relationships. That is why the strike is a weapon of love. That is why also, nowadays, the strike is under attack. We are seeing the increase of legal restrictions on collective actions carried by social movements, with national laws penalising social resistance, attacking social and human rights activists. It is also under attack at the international level: since 2012 the employers’ groups have denied that Convention 087 deals with the right to strike. For these reasons, we need to defend the strike, but we need to exercise it as well, as a way of getting out from this storm, and reaching a safer place to live, and to live throughout our next generations.”
Nazma Akter, president of the Sommilito Garments Shomik Federation in Bangladesh
Nazma Akter said that the history of strikes is inspiring. She revisited her memory of striking for higher wages as a child garment worker in 1991, and discussed the imbalance of power because of poverty, migrant status, gender, that all kept the salary of workers stagnant for 12 years, at 9 euros per month. She tracked the nominal increases of salaries over the years, then the 2013 Rana Plaza disaster that killed 1,134 workers, and the arrest of the owner responsible that took place only after survivors protest. “Without our unions, without our voice, without our fight, nothing will change.”
She spoke of the protests in Ashulia, north of Dhaka, that resulted in the shutdown of trade union offices and arrest of union leaders. “Without migrant workers, the Middle East, the US, Europe – everywhere they need migration […] But look at how they are surviving, they are poor, they don’t have good shelter. That is why we need global strike: Day by day, corporations are gaining power. If we do this one day, even half a day we do not work – then they will realise we are the powerful people, they are not the powerful people. We need the awareness in every community for workers’ rights, indigenous rights, migrant rights, domestic workers rights.”
Daisy Arago, executive director of the Centre for Trade Union and Human Rights (CTUHR)
Daisy Arago spoke of her student activism and inspiration that she gained in witnessing protests on every issue, demanding freedom and democracy, against repression. She agreed that the strike was transformative and that it connects people. She said the power of the strike has been undermined and has been under attack. “The rights that we have now are a product of strikes, of protests. These negotiations are talking about very technical things, but never substantial ones.” Rather than looking at the way the corporations have taken over the power the state, she was saddened and angered to find the conversations at the UN were about strengthening the private sector, which already has so much power.
“We see in every country how corporations have been ripping apart our natural resources to pave the way for extractive mining, we see how they dry the underground water for agricultural plantations of oil palm, bananas, for export. And yet, when we protest, we meet with violence. Many of us have been killed for protesting that kind of influence, power being imposed on us.” She said that the gains of women who went on strikes hundreds of years ago are being lost, taken away.
“This situation is leaving us no choice: if we love the rights we are enjoying now, the only way for us is to protest. The only way for us is to resist, to unite, to be in solidarity with one another – whether we are from the unions, the feminist organisations, the community organisations, we are experiencing suffering from the same situation. When the strike is being undermined both legally and practically, we have to think what to do next. In our country we are told strikes are outmoded practices or strategies, that we should resort to negotiation and dialogue.”
Paulina Davis, vice chair of the New York chapter of National Women’s Liberation (NWL)
Paulina Davis echoed Verónica Montúfar’s thoughts on strikes being about building power. She talked about the roots of the National Women’s Liberation in the 1960s, and said they had often taken inspiration from labour and women’s movements in other countries that had succeeded in getting the systems they needed for support in place. “Part of what we organise around and fight for is that social system. We’re not only seeking to be compensated for the value of our work as workers and women.” She stressed that exploited workers are fighting so much to live, to survive, to have safe places, they are not able to put as much time and energy into calling for transformative changes. Sharing the NWL’s ways of linking to the Women’s March, and the different strikes around the world in the fall of 2016, Paulina narrated the lead up to the call for a women’s strike and their four demands on 21 January 2017, the US Inauguration weekend:
- An end to racist and sexist assaults everywhere.
- Reproductive freedom for all women, and access to childcare
- National healthcare for all, because access to healthcare is oftentimes a determination of outcomes
- Protection and expansion of social and public systems that we have.
The Women’s March saw thousands of pledges around the world, and NWL saw it as a success of expression of solidarity across the world, saying we stand, 7,000 strong. NWL has described it as a ‘mass consciousness raising’ that ensures we are all confronted with the issues, especially through the motivations for striking that women shared. Paulina said that in surveying the strike, they found realisations from participants of their unpaid care work as labour.
“A lot of times,corporations have workers feeling like these are individual problems that they have to solve. Childcare is an individual problem, healthcare is an individual problem […] What striking can do in raising into consciousness is for people to realise this is not an individual problem, this is not just a problem that my family is experiencing. This problem has a political root: there are people who are benefiting from a system where the childcare, the family care, the healthcare falls primarily falls on families that are making low wages, as opposed to redistributing for everyone, and for corporations and governments to pay their fair share in creating those systems. The hope is that then people want to push for change. Once you realise that the problem has a political root and has a collective root, then you want to work together with others to push for change. And then you build power for the things you really want, and not just settle for the reforms that the people in power are willing to give you. But that only works if we do work together, if we do build the power.”
Paulina Davis also discussed a challenging questions that Women’s March organisers faced from the media: ‘Don’t you think telling women to strike is coming from a very privileged place?’ She said that this question revealed how short our memory is and to the extent of how corporations have won the narrative on who has been striking for years. “It has been the case around the world that the people who have been striking have always been the people who have the most to lose, have always been the people who make the biggest sacrifices, but do so because that is the only way they build power and get the things they need in their lives.”