Nurses' Protest in Trafalgar Square, September 2020. Photo: Flickr/Garry Knight Nurses' Protest in Trafalgar Square, September 2020. Photo: Flickr/Garry Knight

Lindsey German returns with the implications of the healthcare fight for our side and theirs

It’s worthy of note that on this International Women’s Day a major fight is brewing between an absolutely key group of predominantly women workers – the nurses – and a government whose policies are damaging women on a daily basis. The founders of IWD would not be surprised at this – it was adopted at a socialist conference in Copenhagen before the First World War, inspired by a major garment workers’ strike in New York led by young migrant women.

While major companies and official bodies now pay lip service to celebrating the day, its origins are rarely mentioned. Nor is it a day dedicated to overcoming the major inequalities which women face. Behind the celebrations of women and this year’s slogan ‘choose to challenge’ lies the reality of life for millions of working-class women.

The nurses are in uproar because after a year which has probably been the most challenging of their lives they are being offered the prospect of a pay cut in real terms, with the miserable below inflation 1% pay rise. They are not the only ones. The public sector pay freeze means teachers, social workers, carers will all be told that they have to accept cuts in their living standards. Those on furlough – many of them women – are having to live on 80% of wages. Millions of women are living in poverty because of punitive levels of benefits. Casualised and precarious workers are noted for the high numbers of women among them.

While Rishi Sunak’s Budget was hailed by some on the left as stealing the clothes of John McDonnell, this really confuses rhetoric with reality. The Budget talked about investment and increasing corporation tax, saying it was on the side of working people, but in reality it offered huge subsidies to corporate spending, while delaying the tax increase for two years at the same time as effectively raising taxes for working class people by freezing thresholds. It has been estimated that super deduction will benefit Amazon by wiping out its entire UK tax bill. For the rest of us there are a further £4billion public sector cuts, the pay freeze and the nurses’ pitiful increase.

It’s no surprise that the Tory party is screwing workers. At every stage of this pandemic there have been warm words for key workers, especially in the NHS, but major failures of measures to protect them such as protective clothing, effective testing and tracing, and safety measures at work. The NHS remains seriously underfunded and understaffed – and subject to privatisation. The government’s disastrous handling of the pandemic has led to one of the highest death tolls in the world because its priority has always been protecting profit not public safety.

None of this is down to accident, it is down to class. The priorities of the Tories are to protect the interests of their class, and they are very good at maintaining those priorities. This applies to women as much as anything else.

The open dirty secret about capitalism is that it depends on women’s unpaid or low paid labour to survive and that means inequality is locked into the system itself. Low pay, the under valuing of caring work, the level of unpaid domestic work, the sexual stereotypes which accompany this situation, are all part of a framework of exploitation which is immensely beneficial to the capitalist class in direct terms, and also benefits it in terms of dividing and ruling the working class.  

Working class women and men are both exploited under this system and have every interest in uniting together to fight against it. This truth is obscured by the real sexism and oppression that women suffer, and by the trivialisation of issues to do with men’s and women’s gender roles (the ‘men are from Mars, women from Venus’ approach). The idea of a sisterhood of women across all classes is revealed as false again and again as female university vice chancellors and senior managers, female CEOs and HR directors, academy heads and FE college principals, all line up to justify low pay, casualised employment, unsafe working conditions, and long hours both paid and unpaid for women workers. 

The past year has seen a growth in discontent among working people – there have been more strikes, more people joining unions as the inequalities of race, gender and class have been highlighted and exacerbated by the pandemic. These inequalities are leading to very different outcomes of Covid-19, and government austerity policies are exacerbating them.

Class remains the major dividing line in society and increasing numbers of working-class people are seeing that they will have to fight for their class interests just as the ruling class does. The Corbyn leadership of Labour gave many hope that some of these class inequalities could be reduced and that a greater share of wealth could go to working people. But that is over and Corbyn’s replacement has shown himself in his true colours. Keir Starmer is on the side of the ruling class, fulfilling Labour’s traditional role of loyal opposition. He is even to the right of the Tories on tax – timid and fearful.

Despite his poor efforts, this is turning out to be a really stupid move by the Tories. When the Daily Express comes out in support of the nurses it’s a sign that they may have overstepped the mark this time.  

The original IWD celebrated the struggles of working women against both their exploitation and their oppression. Time to put that centre stage again.

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Lindsey German

As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.

Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.