Peg Hunter, Flickr

5 Reasons Feminists in Leeds Are Striking on 8 March

Across the world, a mass feminist politics is resurging. Whether it’s women striking en-masse against the criminalization of abortion in Poland, resistance against femicide in Latin America or millions protesting in the US against the presidency of a serial sexual abuse, women and feminized people are rising up. 

With even hard-won rights like abortion under renewed threat, both the ravages of neoliberalism and the revival of far-right politics have provoked widespread feminist indignation. These interlocking struggles across borders have found convergence in the International Women’s Strike, which saw millions striking in 50 countries last year. In cities across the UK – from Leeds to Edinburgh to London – we will be striking once again to reclaim International Women’s Day. Here are five reasons why.

1. Mass feminist politics and the return of class struggle. 

Wrenched from its radical roots in the struggles of working class women, International Women’s Day has been increasingly defanged in the name of corporate interest. After almost a decade of living under austerity since the global financial crash, it is women and feminized people in the UK who have bore the brunt of its devastating consequences. Events since the crash have precipitated a plummet in living standards, attacks on working conditions and the hollowing out of infrastructure. Communities have endured the gross underfunding of health and social care services, the closure of domestic violence refuges and vicious cuts to social welfare. In the wake of all this, it has been nurses, carers, single mothers and survivors of abuse who have most harshly felt the impacts of neoliberal economic policy.

In this way, the drastic class inequalities entrenched by austerity have been distinctly gendered.  Social, public and community institutions have been pillaged and the feminized labour that maintains these sectors further devalued.  From public sector workers in Glasgow to migrant cleaners in London, marginalized women have boldly struck against exploitation, sexual harassment and pay discrimination, opening up a new terrain of feminist class struggle.

2. Austerity and resistance in the north. 

Austerity has exacerbated deep-seated regional inequalities. Severe cuts to local council budgets have disproportionately affected regions in the north – with severe ramifications for libraries, social care, housing, education and domestic violence services. Spiralling child care, energy and rent costs in combination with cuts to benefits, job insecurity, and wage repression have intensified poverty in areas already blighted by de-industrialization and infrastructural under-investment.  From the wrenching choice of whether to feed the kids or heat your home, to the hellish system that is Universal Credit, the collective labour and infrastructure that sustains our society is increasingly undermined while profits continue to soar.

The decline of traditional trade unionism in the face of neoliberal deregulation has weakened dissent against austerity in the North, with resistance predominantly emerging from community campaigns against the bedroom tax, NHS privatisation and sanctions regimes. The Women’s Strike could be a site through which to consolidate collective industrial strength across communities and workplaces, demanding redistribution and dignity for traditionally unpaid domestic and care work and for increasingly precarious service-oriented labour throughout society.

3. Trans rights groups are organizing. 

The effects of precarious work, healthcare cuts and the dismantling of social housing have been felt especially acutely by poor trans people –  a demographic that struggles disproportionately with homelessness, unemployment and violence due to rampant structural transphobia. Languishing on years-long waiting lists for gender affirmation treatment, unable to access social housing when disowned by transphobic family, discriminated against by aggressive employers and an increasingly hostile and punitive welfare regime, the distress and misery suffered by trans people under neoliberalism is profound. It is only through developing collective power to challenge employers, landlords and the state that we might leverage demands for greater rights and protections across society.

The impressive endeavours of groups like Trans Leeds to reclaim Pride as a community-oriented, oppositional space, offer social and support services and challenge prejudice in the healthcare system, gestures towards the kind of groundwork needed for militant trans organizing to take root. It is vital that feminists contest the transphobic chauvinism unleashed in backlash against the Gender Recognition Act last year and vigorously work to combat gendered oppression in all its forms.

4. Sex workers are organizing. 

Marginalized groups – trans people, women, migrants – who are traditionally excluded from the workplace often enter the sex industry to get by.  With poverty and destitution becoming more entrenched by austerity policies, people are turning to food banks as much as sex work. In Leeds, a ‘managed zone’ has been implemented in Holbeck, wherein law enforcement does not prosecute the sale of sex within designated non-residential areas. This has provided space for the delivery of welfare services and facilitated greater protection for vulnerable sex workers in the zone. Despite its clear social benefits, there has been a concerted effort by campaigners, the council and property developers to shut it down. The fact that removing it would only displace and endanger sex workers has of course been resolutely ignored, as have the failures of the shadowy and violent police operations that preceded its introduction.

In response, sex workers have begun organizing with Sex Worker Advocacy and Resistance Movement (SWARM) and around the local charity Basis to defend the zone and agitate towards decriminalization. Feminists must firmly support these efforts whilst militating for an end to poverty and neoliberalism, as the Sex/Work strike in London this year and last attests. The alternative is racist and callous police raids in collaboration with immigration enforcement, more dangerous working conditions where violence cannot be reported and the subsequent inability for people to work collectively, ultimately vesting even more power  in bosses’ hands. Sex workers need unions, not stigma and ‘rescue’ by state crackdowns.

5. Coalition building and the community. 

Coalitions and solidarity among the marginalised and oppressed must form the basis for the strength of the Women’s Strike. This feminist resurgence is providing a framework for struggles for migrant justice, sex work decriminalization, trans rights, public housing, and the NHS to unite and amplify one another. It is demanding emancipation from state control and a rapacious economic system. It is revolting against gendered exploitation, oppression and violence in the streets, the workplace and the home. It is rediscovering community and vibrant militancy in amongst the desolation of neoliberalism and the rise of the far right.

Together, feminists across the world are reclaiming the radical legacy of International Women’s Day to strive towards a red feminist horizon. It is a politics of care as much as it is one of rage, reckoning with the power those who reproduce society have to utterly transform it.

The Women’s Strike Assembly Leeds event for the 8 March can be found here.

Published 7th March 2019

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