Exactly one year ago today, 5 million women in Spain went on strike.
For two hours on March 8, 2018, they flooded the streets—students and politicians, domestic workers and business leaders, women of all stripes and identities—to call for an end to Spain’s machista culture, and the toxic societal blights that come along with it: structural inequality, sexual harassment, domestic violence, and a pervasive wage gap. Organized by a coalition group called the 8 March Commission and spearheaded by the National Confederation of Labour (CNT), Spain’s largest confederation of radical labor unions, the general strike was extremely popular amongst the general public, with a full 82% of Spaniards saying that they “believe that there are sufficient reasons to call a protest against discrimination against women.”
Today, they’re doing it again. At the time of this writing, the strike is already in full swing in over 1,200 locations around Spain, as are other International Women’s Day actions around the globe. There will be no general strike today—in the U.S. at least—but there is much we can learn from our Spanish sisters and siblings in the struggle.
It’s not surprising that feminist labor activists in Spain—a country with a long history of mass labor actions, robust leftist political tradition, and strong anarcho-syndicalist unions—managed to successfully engineer a general strike of such magnitude, but those watching from this side of the ocean surely can’t help but feel a pang of jealousy. It was the threat of a general strike (delivered in no uncertain terms by Sara Nelson, the formidable and charismatic president of the Association of Flight Attendants) that helped to end Donald Trump’s cruel government shutdown, yet right now at least, the mere idea of American workers undertaking that kind of large-scale work stoppage still seems closer to a figment of our collectively oppressed imaginations than a real possibility.
We haven’t seen a general strike on these shores in decades, thanks in part to the the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act (which renders solidarity strikes across disparate industries illegal) as well as a systematic dismantling of organized American labor power that began in earnest when Ronald Reagan busted the PATCO air traffic controllers union in 1981, and that is now enthusiastically upheld by Trump’s anti-worker regime. Recent years have seen an upswing in mass rallies and demonstrations (generally in protest of the white supremacist in the White House), and on International Women’s Day in 2017, Women’s March affiliates attempted “A Day Without a Woman.” The day saw thousands across the country participating in what was billed as a one-day “strike,” though organizers acknowledged it was meant to function more as a traditional rally, and to “introduce women to different tactics of activism,” as co-organizer Linda Sarsour told the New York Times.
The idea of a women’s strike has appeared in a number of different countries. Iceland’s 1975 Women’s Day Off (Kvennafrídagurinn) strike saw 90% of the female populace refuse to go to their paid jobs or perform domestic work in protest of wage disparities and social inequality; one participant called it “a quiet revolution.” The following year, Iceland’s parliament passed a law guaranteeing equal rights to women and men. In 2016, tens of thousands of Argentinian women filled the streets for Ni Una Menos, a mass protest against sexual violence. Female factory workers across China have been staging strikes for years over low wages and gender discrimination at work. On January 1, 2019, between 3.5 and 5 million women in the southern Indian state of Kerala joined hands to form a gargantuan human chain to protest gender inequality and religious discrimination against women. It stretched for 385 miles. A few weeks later, 50,000 women garment workers in Bangladesh staged a militant work stoppage for higher wages that lasted for nearly two weeks, and was met by a violent police crackdown.
The 8 March Commission already made its mark on feminist—and labor—history last year, but in 2019, they’re hoping to go even bigger. Once again, they’re joining forces with Italy’s Unione Sindacale Italiana (USI), with whom they work closely, and share both an overarching politic and a desire to take their fight against gender discrimination—and capitalist oppression—international.
“Our objective is to project and coordinate internationally the union sections to spread the struggle across the world; if we want to abolish capitalism, we need to spread our fights worldwide,” a spokesperson for the CNT told me over email (they requested to be identified simply as “CNT International group of work”).
They’re calling for a 24-hour strike, instead of the two-hour version that, under Spanish law, all workers are entitled to participate in per shift in the event of a strike (unlike the U.S., the right to strike is enshrined in the Spanish Constitution, and trade unions are empowered to legally call strikes that impact entire sectors) and that traditional labor unions are continuing to encourage. (The CNT, being anarcho-syndicalists, don’t mind ruffling their stodgier counterparts’ feathers). Unlike some other country’s feminist organizations, they are also encouraging men to get involved. In contrast to historical efforts in other places, these activists have no interest in showing what a world without women might look like. They want to build solidarity across gender lines and show what a world with a truly unified working class could look like.
“CNT advocates the strike of men and women as a tool to paralyze the system, not as a symbol to make visible the lack of women on the 8th of March,” they explain. “We believe that a revolution is happening, that feminism goes beyond the women’s struggle—it is a class struggle that wants to support racialized women and transgender [people], women around the world, and to put an end to patriarchy and the precariousness of all class workers.”
The CNT’s feminist roots can be traced back to the Spanish Civil War and the founding of the union’s women-only Mujeres Libres branch in 1936, during the anti-capitalist, anti-fascist, anarchist-led workers’ revolution. Now, the daughters and granddaughters of those original revolutionaries are running the show in the union’s current incarnation, wherein women hold the majority of powerful union secretary and representative roles.
“They [fought] in the Spanish Civil War on the same way as men, when the rest of political alternatives prompted women to work in the rear,” the spokesperson explained. “Nowadays, Mujeres Libres still works actively, and its activity and the work of the rest of women has strongly influenced the CNT in itself. We are a big part of the militancy and it is growing year by year building a new anti-patriarchy root inside. We seek militancy in feminized sectors, [and] this is having a positive consequence.”
The 8 March Commission’s demands for this year’s strike have not changed from 2018;if anything, given the recent rise of the far-right, anti-feminist Vox political party in Spain, they are even more pressing now. Vox seeks to scrap a landmark 2004 law on gender violence, arguing that it discriminates against men, and its supporters have been attacking the 2019 strike on social media. The organizers are undeterred, and have been planning for this day since the last strike ended. They’ve got their own hashtags, too: #HuelgaFeminista2019 or #HuelgaFeminista8M.
“We want to fight against gender violence, the figures are horrible. 1,003 women have died since 2010 in Spain, and not only those killed, that violence is palpable in all spheres of our lives,” the collective said in its email. “In the workplace we demand the end of the wage gap, which reaches more than 20%: we know solutions and mechanisms to finish with it that are not being put into practice.”
“We demand access to employment and professional promotion by establishing objective measures for this way of collective bargaining, prohibiting companies that demand availability outside the working day and obligating them to provide the training carried out within working hours. We demand that identical maternity and paternity [leave]. With regard to pensions, we demand the elimination of the gender gap; this gap derives from the social organization of work, which devalues care, and gender discrimination in the labor market.”
The CNT left me with some advice for American feminists and labor activists who want to build something bigger.
“We believe that the feminist message must be given from a rooted class perspective,” the CNT spokesperson says. “We do not believe in the division between feminism and politics. We believe in feminism as a struggle to support the racialized, against emigration, in favor of equal employment opportunities, against the capitalism that underpins the patriarchal system.”
“Seek affiliation in impoverished and feminized sectors, giving a trade union tool to people who do not believe in the association of workers, such as the cases we have had among hotel cleaners, which never believed in their profession as strong and empowered to fight,” they continued. “Seek support and propagation among migrant or class women, who are against the patriarchal capitalist system, and let them see that the General Strike has a huge impact in our society. The majority of the population has changed their way of thinking. We need a change.”
My American comrades, take note. Viva la huelga!