“Caring (care work) should be a choice, something we can chose to do. But we should be able to do it without the burden of living in poverty.” Guest speaker and legendary marxist-feminist activist Selma James concluded with these words her opening speech towards more than 300 Women from all over Germany who had gathered in the City of Göttingen between 10th – 11th November to co-organize the Women’s Strike for the 8th March 2019. In the face of her decade long experience and broad knowledge, especially with the “Wages for Housework”-Campaign starting from the mid 1970s, James spoke about the importance of paid care work, closing the gender pay gap and joint work struggles with sex workers. Thus, she emphasised the need for a grass-roots movement with proletarian-feminist character – the interests, needs and leadership of this movement should come from the grassroots, not from the top. Alongside many practice-oriented workshops, the first nationwide networking meeting in Göttingen provided the frame to jointly work on a strike call. Following a consensus vote, the strike call includes now demands on the closure of pay gaps, the recognition of paid and not paid care work, the right to seek asylum and the right to stay, the end of all kinds of violence against women, the end of German arms exports and the preservation of natural resources.
Women’s strike and Trade Unions
The meeting in Göttingen did not only serve as networking opportunity, but provided further room for discussions and a wide variety of interactive and information-based workshops. Similar to James, the participating women acknowledged the need for mass mobilisation on the ground, starting with the labour unions. German laws are quite restrictive when it comes to strikes. In fact, German strike regulations are one of the most restrictive not only in Europe but also worldwide. There is a clear distinction between labour law strikes and political strikes. The law itself only allows strikes in the context of German labour law and only when part of greater wage negotiations. Strikes are legal when their demands include concrete regulations about work hours, retirement or wage level. Also, only labour unions are legally permitted to call for a strike. Independently of labour union membership, everyone is permitted to strike when a labour union calls for a strike. However, if a labour union calls for a strike that does not follow goals of wage negotiations- based regulations, unions can further be confronted with threatening compensation claims in the case of absence from work. Since the legal foundation is not very diﬀerentiated, strike related court disputes are often decided on a case-by-case basis. In this context, judicial decisions often go along with the prevailing societal opinion and what is socially accepted (Sozialadäquanz: social adequancy). In other words: judgements succumb to a widely lived strike practice on a massive scale.
What next? Changing German Strike Culture, Changing German Strike Laws
A wider feminist strike, a political strike according to German law, would be illegal. This would include also strikes for better and accessible education, higher social benefits and higher pensions (pension pay gap is 45% between men and women in Germany). As for now, most German labour unions do not vocally support the Women’s strike with the main counter argument being about its political and not labour law oriented character.
The activists working on the legal perspectives of political strikes and the role of labour unions very quickly reached a consensus. They agreed that labour unions, particularly the major DGB – unions (Deutscher Gewerkschaftsbund= Federation of German Trade Unions), are of crucial importance for organising a successful Women’s Strike in Germany. Thus, the only way of compelling labour unions to oﬃcially call for the Women’s strike is through mass mobilisation at the grassroots in order to increase the public pressure, so that the unions will call a national strike. Pressuring the labour unions to call for a Women’s Strike will stretch their bounds of legality, but at first it will hugely contribute to publicly and symbolically changing the prevailing conservative opinion on strikes in Germany.
In the long run, changes in strike law will only follow a vividly implemented strike culture at the grassroots. In the face of possible consequences in the case of absence from work when participating in semi-legal strikes, creating a wide and sound solidarity network of labour unions, workers’ and students’ associations and legal support is crucial.
Leading an inclusive Women’s Strike
A mobilisation at the grassroots and reach out to women wagen workers through labour unions is one step. Another one is to eﬀectively reach out to women who do not get paid for the work they do. These include women who do care work, including raising children, doing the housework, taking care of old, sick and disabled people. This also includes women who are also made invisible in society, such as migrant and refugee women. These women are often aﬀected by a lack of accessibility due to language barriers, forcibly illegalised labour or uncertainty of their right of abode, which is often linked to legalised wage labour. Thus, strategies to reach out to marginalised working women are being developed beyond labour unions. These includes solid and regular political door-to-door mobilisation, providing low-threshold access by seeking out working women through various unions, organisations, schools, communities and neighbourhoods.
The organisational meeting in Göttingen provided a broad spectrum of co-working spaces, interactive workshops, development of joint strategies and the unique opportunity to network with more than 300 women from all over Germany. Migrant and refugee women were able to make their voices heard and to create an internationalist perspective. The presence of migrant and refugee women in the mobilisation provides a direct link between the German Women’s Strike and global struggles against wars, colonialism and land grabbing, and struggles for the conservation of natural resources. A highly optimistic and combative mood run through the entire weekend and prepared the women for the upcoming crucial months in the preparation of the International Women’s Strike on March 8th 2019.