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Issue 574, 5 October 2007 - All unions should back the Greens

How women created a new working class

READING THE Financial Review recently I came across an article by former Liberal Party leader John Hewson who was outlining concerns about a wages breakout. Well, at least he has some idea that workers are unhappy about low wages during a boom. But he may be a little shocked to hear it may come from women.British Stop the War Coalition Convenor and leading socialist Lindsey German's new book Material Girls points to the crucial role of women in the modern economy and uncovers a way forward for women's liberation.

The book combines a social history of women and an international analysis of women's oppression.

All women are oppressed by the way society is dominated by the capitalist class and the market. However, the exploited women of the working class shoulder an incredible workload with their dual role in the home caring for their family while holding down significant workplace responsibilities. They have double the oppression.

According to the April 2006 Economist magazine, "The increase in female employment in the rich world has been the main driving force of�global GDP growth than have either new technology or the new giants, China and India. Add the value of housework and child-rearing, and women probably account for just over half of world output."

Women make up a new army of labour for new and old service industries, especially hospitality and retail, but also in call centres. Across the world they maintain the textile industries. While the labour of the poorest women in countries like the Philippines produces expensive luxuries for the rich in the North, the everyday drudgery and struggle of women workers is made invisible.

In Australia, WorkChoices disproportionately affects this new working class. In February, IR specialist David Peetz argued:

"WorkChoices�appears to have led to real wage declines in retail and hospitality, probably as a result of the loss of penalty rates in those industries, and in the short term at least a drop in real and relative earnings for women, while profits are at record levels, continuing a trend established under the Workplace Relations Act."

This process of female recruitment not only means unequal pay. It has also established a mechanism for driving down both male and female wages. Both working men and women would benefit from equal pay and conditions.

However, the solution is also to be found in the factories and offices, as growing numbers of women join trade unions and begin to learn resistance.

Today about 42 per cent of all union members are women. Their allies are most likely to be their male co-workers and co-unionists, not the new layers of higher-paid professional women.

These career women have little shared experience with poorer women and are also often pitted against them, being hirers and firers of labour and often employing low paid nannies and domestic workers.

Lindsey German's book is a manual for women activists because it draws valuable lessons from past struggles as well as the present, showing that women can provide a lead in making change.

Most women workers probably know nothing of the history, but they are standing on the shoulders of previous generations of women workers who struggled for their liberation.

Textile workers were in the vanguard sparking the Russian Revolution, women metalworkers fought for equal pay during the World War II and many women won equal pay through the struggles of the 1960s.

Such struggles by women in Britain and Australia in the 1970s underpinned a radical Women's Liberation Movement dedicated to class-oriented demands such as free 24-hour childcare, equal pay, health services, abortion rights, maternity leave and sole parent's pensions.

All these periods of history have a common thread with today. This is because women's labour is in demand, creating new circumstances, encouraging confidence and a fighting spirit from the most oppressed sections of the working class.

It is the new combination of male and female workers that is bringing change and prosperity to capitalism's economies all around the world-and this is also a winning combination not only for better wages and conditions but a new system based on a better life for all.

The struggle against oppression has often drawn in and linked up with class struggles internationally.

But to be truly successful they must give voice to those women worst affected and make the invisible visible again. That way socialism will be a real movement from below.

Judy McVey

Material Girls: Women, Men and Work
by Lindsey German
Bookmarks, $40