A couple of months back, PSA union leader Erin Polaczuk told the Listener magazine she was glad to be operating in a ‘mature era’, where battles are won in court rather than on testosterone-fuelled picket lines. Okay, so those weren’t her exact words but that’s pretty much the gist. That thanks to the ‘feminisation of unions”, that “stupid oppositional behaviour” – ie strikes – are a little bit, you know, last century.
She cited the case of the huge settlement last year for care and support workers, led by the amazing Kristine Bartlett. That it was won in court. And yes, kudos to Kristine for taking her stand. But, crucially, Kristine had behind her the mass power of her union, and the real source of that power? The ability to strike.
Strikes – and I say this as a longtime female unionist – are not macho, they’re not old-fashioned, they’re not “stupid”. They are, quite simply, the only real firepower we have. The ultimate expression of the power of collectivity.
I have been a union member for almost 30 years and in that time I’ve heard a lot of different reasons why striking, even belonging to a union, isn’t smart or modern. As a sub-editor on London’s Daily Mirror in the early 90s, I heard ‘ah but we’re white collar’, ‘we’re part of the new middle-class’ ‘we’re creatives; we don’t clock on and off… unions are for blue collar workers’; ‘we should form a staff association; they’re less confrontational’. Lol. Why not form a book club while you’re at it.
I haven’t heard the ‘it’s not ladylike’ before. But hey.
So Erin, you think strikes are macho? Tell that to those American women teachers who, despite living in a country ruled by an arch-sexist, recently went on strike for nine days and won a pay rise for all state employees in West Virginia.
Tell it to the all-female kindergarten workers in New Delhi who last year won a doubling in their salary after a strike by their, also female, union leader Shivani.
Closer to home, tell that to Joyce Hawe of Te Arawa, a machinist at Progress Manufacturing in Porirua who organised a successful strike for higher pay. Or Bertie Ratu, who organised a protest when Talleys sacked her for being a unionist. Or any number of women throughout labour history. The Dagenham machinists whose action in the 70s led to not just pay rises for them, but a pay equality law change. The many women throughout history at the forefront of revolutionary action, from the Paris Commune to the Russian Revolution.
Striking is a proud and mighty tradition – for men and women, side by side. And strikes have often been led by women because in a world where we suffer discrimination and sexism, we understand that it’s by withdrawing our labour that we can really be heard. We understand that while the 1% hold the wealth, it’s us - ordinary men and women - who create it.
Why do I mention this now? Well, we’ve just seen a week of strong, vocal rallies by nurses from the NZNO union, many of them women. They are on the brink of strike action after rejecting a paltry 2 per cent pay offer. They feel undervalued. They feel their work conditions are jeopardising quality of care for patients. They don’t want to strike. They’re in their profession because they care about sick people, so of course a vote to withdraw their labour – however minimal the risk to patients – is not taken lightly. But they know, as I and millions of women before me have known, that strikes make the bosses sit up and listen.
All power to them.