On Wednesday 8 March millions of women around the world will mark International Women’s Day with rallies, marches and celebrations.
For union members, whether men or women, it is worth remembering that this day was originally known as International Working Women’s Day – and for good reason. It had its beginnings in the struggles for decent rights and conditions for women workers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, particularly in the US and Europe.
On 8 March, 1908, 15,000 women garment workers, including many immigrants, marched through New York City to demand economic and political rights. The action spurred a three month strike by immigrant garment workers which targeted notorious New York sweatshops, including Triangle Shirtwaist, the scene of a horrific fire a few years later in which 146 women workers were killed.
The example of the US women workers, together with the growing involvement of women in labour movement struggles in Europe during this period, led in 1910 to the call for a special day to mark working women’s solidarity internationally.
The following year, women in Europe took to the streets on the first official IWD to demand their rights as workers and as citizens.
Today, many people who celebrate IWD may not be aware of its history and the importance of keeping that history alive.
The fact is, though, that globally women continue to be among the most ruthlessly exploited and most vulnerable workers as the terrible events in Bangladesh a few years ago reminded the world. The collapse of the Rana Plaza building in 2013 resulted in the death of 1,134 garment workers and the injury of over 2,400 more. The vast majority of these – around 80% - were women.
And while tragedies such as this are now rare in “first world” countries like Australia, women here still earn on average some 20% less than men – a “gender pay gap” that largely reflects the relatively low value placed on so-called “women’s work” such as administrative and human services.
Today, some 60% of Australian women are in the workforce and they make up 46% of the total number of workers. These figures point to the obvious fact that there can be no Women’s Day which isn’t also a Working Women’s Day and that so-called “women’s issues”, whether they be wage equity, promotional opportunity, childcare availability or domestic violence, are the business of the entire labour movement.
The CWU encourages members to check out IWD activities in their state – and join in.