By Ai-Jen Poo
I sometimes ask domestic workers to imagine what would happen if every nanny, house cleaner, and home care worker in the country decided to go on strike for one day. I ask them to reflect on all the children, seniors, and families who would be touched, and then to think about how those families’ workplaces would be affected—the business people, lawyers, and doctors, all the people who couldn’t work because no one was there to support their needs. The response to this question is often quiet concern for the people they work for, followed by animated banter as they imagine chaos in all the households trying to manage without them. Though society doesn’t value care and cleaning in the home as “real” work, the workers themselves know that their daily work is important, even fundamental.
Until now, I haven’t posed the question of "a day without domestic workers" in preparation for an actual strike. I’ve asked because it’s rare that we as women, particularly women whose wages are never quite enough to pay the bills, ever think about our collective power in the economy, much less what we could achieve if we directed that power collectively. But in this new political era, it’s time that women do more than simply recognize our power—we must organize it.
On March 8 women from every part of the country and the economy will rise together to participate in #DayWithoutAWoman, also known as the Women’s Strike. A follow-up to the historic Women’s March on January 21, #DayWithoutAWoman will fall on International Women’s Day, which honors the social, political, and economic contributions of women globally. Originally named International Working Women’s Day back in 1909, March 8 highlights how women’s work—paid and unpaid—drives the economy worldwide. There is a long, yet little-known, history of global women’s activism on this day. For example, on March 8, 1975, the Icelandic women’s strike set the stage for the election of the first woman president in the world, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir.
At its heart, a strike is an action that workers take to disrupt "business as usual." Strikes both shine a light on injustice and demonstrate—to the strikers and to everyone else—the collective power to change the status quo. If ever there were a time for women to throw a wrench in things, it’s now. We are nearly half of the entire workforce. And we still provide more than 70 percent of the unpaid family care in the United States. We are also a majority of the consumer base (over 70 percent) in this country. It’s our work and our dollars that create wealth for the winners in this economy—from Uber to Walmart.
As much as some of us may like our jobs, we still face pay inequity, lack of respect, discrimination, and harassment, and lack of access to opportunity for advancement and security. At a time when we should be making progress at light speed on all of these issues, we face powerful opposition, from the government to society at large.
For women in low-wage jobs like domestic work, the stakes are higher than ever. Women make up two-thirds of the nearly 20 million workers in low-wage jobs—defined as jobs that typically pay $10.10 per hour or less, according to a report from the National Women's Law Center. Women of color are disproportionately concentrated in low-wage jobs; nearly half of all women in the low-wage workforce are women of color. Home care jobs, for example, are the fastest growing occupation in the economy today, and are overwhelmingly dominated by women, disproportionately women of color and immigrants. Their median annual income? $13,000 per year.
It’s time for #DayWithoutAWoman. Women from all walks of life will be participating—and there are many ways to participate. Organizers are calling on us to choose among three options: Don’t work, don’t buy things, and wear red. Domestic workers will be participating by wearing red to work. As is the case with many low-wage workers who lack job security, most domestic workers cannot afford to take a day off, or they could risk losing their jobs if they do.
Those who can take the day off will join restaurant workers, retail workers, and others for the Women Workers Rising solidarity rally at the Department of Labor in Washington, D.C. They will call for fairness in our economy, beginning with the most vulnerable (and increasingly targeted) among us, including poor women, transgender women, women with disabilities, and Black, Muslim and immigrant women. They will be joined by women in more than 40 countries worldwide.
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