It was the courage of hundreds of women shirtwaist workers that inspired International Women’s Day. They walked off the job for better wages and the right to vote in 1909, striking for 13 weeks in a bitter cold New York winter. At the Second International Conference of Socialist Women in 1910, one hundred years ago, German Communist Clara Zetkin proposed that March 8 be set aside each year for solidarity with women workers around the world. Since 1977 International Women’s Day has been recognized and celebrated by the United Nations.
Like May Day, International Women’s Day is borne of the struggles of the U.S. working class for decent wages and working conditions and equal rights.
The centennial anniversary of International Women’s Day takes place in the midst of a devastating global economic crisis.
The U.S. Department of Labor reports growing long-term unemployment for women ages 45 to 64. Official unemployment for female heads-of-households is 12.6 percent. About 1.1 million are single mothers. For some, the only income is food stamps. As poverty rises, these are crisis conditions.
The continuing wage gap plus low wage jobs with not enough hours and lack of adequate health care put women at the bottom economically. Income is even lower for African American, Latino, Asian and Native American women as a result of racism.
The Machinists union has issued a call for women across the country to “join together in telling Congress, America needs JOBS Now!” on Monday, March 8. Women are urged to send a message to their Senators and Representative to support the program of JOBS Now! for a substantial new stimulus package that will aid states and cities, and create jobs for public works on a large scale.
The right to join a union is a strong antidote to poverty. Union women earn 32 percent more than nonunion women, African American union members earn 28 percent more than their nonunion counterparts, for Latino workers, the union advantage equals 43 percent and for Asian American workers, the union advantage is 6 percent.
Women are a key part of the broad alliance that elected President Barack Obama. The right-wing did everything to split off women, including the candidacy of Sarah Palin. But in the end, the majority of women did not vote for a candidate who opposed reproductive rights and workers rights. They voted for the candidate that represented a change in direction away from the extreme right-wing.
The first bill that President Obama signed into law, the Lily Ledbetter bill, protected the rights of women to take action against wage discrimination. Now much more is required.
Health care is expected to come up for vote soon, and hopefully can break through the logjam of the Republicans and conservative Democratic supporters.
The most significant thing that can be done to uphold the meaning of International Women’s Day is to restore and rebuild the grass roots movement that elected President Obama around the issues. The five-point jobs program of the AFL-CIO and Jobs for America Now is an excellent starting point that can make a difference in people’s lives.
The labor movement understands that women represent an important sector against reaction. They are embracing and reaching out to women workers who now make up half the workforce. Unity of the coalition is number one if the cause of women and all ordinary people is to be moved forward.
“Just like women 100 years ago, women in America-and around the world-are fighting back,” says the proclamation of the AFL-CIO Executive Council. “On this year’s anniversary of International Women’s Day, we recommit ourselves to continue to the struggle for equal rights, dignity and respect for all working women while paying close attention to women’s concerns in our fight to create jobs.”