The women's strike of 14 June took on a truly mass character in many cities. How did it come about? And what conclusions can we draw from Switzerland's biggest mobilisation in many years?
Last Friday, over 500,000 people took to the streets all over the country. This enormous mass movement exceeded the last big mobilisations against the Iraq war in 2003, and also the historic women's strike of 14 June 1991. In many cities, it was the largest demonstration of the last 50 years. Enthusiasm and a willingness to fight were clearly felt everywhere.
A true wave of awakening political consciousness is currently underway, at least among young people. In the spring, the climate strikes attracted tens of thousands of people to the streets on several occasions. This represents an extraordinary period of mobilisation for Switzerland. This confirms the Marxist perspective of recent years. As we described in detail in our perspectives document, we must not be blinded by the superficial calm. Even in Switzerland, below the stable situation on the surface, frustration is building up over the existing conditions. This frustration has not found an outlet… until recently.
In the last few years, we have seen a worldwide upsurge of fights against women's oppression and in defence of the climate. The movements in Switzerland are neither coincidental, nor a Swiss peculiarity. They are part of an international development, whose origins can be found in the organic crisis of capitalism. And this crisis hits women everywhere particularly hard. The capitalist system is increasingly exposing its inability to enable young people and workers to live a life free from oppression.
Women in reactionary Switzerland
There are countless reasons for women in Switzerland to go on strike. This starts with the huge double burden they face. Mothers with small children do up to 46 hours of unpaid housework per week. In only 5 percent of households does the man do most of the housework. In addition, 80 percent of women have a salaried job.
This heavy double burden is made possible by a Swiss peculiarity: part-time work. 60 percent of women work part-time, which is the second highest percentage in the world. For this "opportunity", however, women are expected to be grateful to the capitalists and accept poor working conditions.
The position of women in the family and society is cemented by high wage inequality of almost 20 percent. This makes it clear that families tend to entrust women with housework and, eventually, part-time work. On average, part-time working women account for only 24 percent of family income. This means that women are materially dependent on men. This dependence is an important element of women's oppression, in all its ugly facets.
The oppression of women penetrates all social spheres. In the workplace, 31 percent of women in Switzerland have been harassed at least once. 63 percent of women claim to have been harassed in public during the past 12 months. In terms of domestic violence against women, an increase of 12 percent was recorded between 2012 and 2016.
The profound oppression of women in Switzerland does not fall from the sky. It is the result, and at the same time a stabiliser, of arch-reactionary Swiss capitalism. Women's suffrage was not introduced until 1971. Until 1992, rape in marriage was not legally considered rape and only since 2004 has it been a so-called official offence, which must be prosecuted by the authorities even if the victim does not pursue charges.
Another decisive factor is the poorly developed welfare state in Switzerland. It is the second-last country in Western and Northern Europe in terms of financial support for families. In Switzerland, caring for the elderly and people with disabilities is also the responsibility of private households (and is thus mainly taken care of by women). While in the OECD countries, on average, 85 percent of long-term care is financed or subsidised by the state, in Switzerland this proportion is less than 40 percent. The number of crèches on offer cover only 11 percent of children in Switzerland. And finally, there is the complete absence of any legal paternity leave, and the 14 weeks of legal maternity leave for women is already incredibly short.
This clearly shows that capitalism has less and less to offer for working women (and men). More and more people are becoming aware of this and are prepared to fight against it. This must be one of the most important insights for all left-wing organisations from the huge mobilisation of 14 June.
However, the major parties, and especially the trade unions, are lagging far behind these developments in the consciousness of workers and the youth. The trade unions have always been poorly represented among working women. This is reflected in the very low numbers of trade union members in typical women's occupations. In education and child-raising, 6 percent of workers are unionised, for healthcare it is 3 percent, and cleaning 6 percent. The low level of unionisation means that women have scarcely been able to engage in organised fights for better conditions. Trade unions therefore bear a major responsibility for the weak welfare state and the poor living conditions of women in Switzerland.
The role of the organisers
The women's strike did not originate with the mass organisations, but with a few leading women trade unionists and feminist activists. The idea was launched after the gigantic 8 March 2018 women’s strike in Spain, where 6 million people stormed the streets. The date chosen for the Swiss women's strike was 14 June, the anniversary of the historic 1991 women's strike.
At that time too, half a million people took part. The focus was on the "equality law". It had been included in the constitution in 1981, but had remained an empty promise. The women's strike of 1991 was, like that of today, a mass demonstration against the backward conditions in Switzerland. The women's strike movement of 1991 was quickly substituted by professional politics and tokenism, i.e. the idea that it is sufficient to elect women into government and replace the mobilisations on the streets– as we have analysed in detail in a series of articles. The fact that the situation of women in Switzerland has not actually improved over the past 28 years is sufficient to demonstrate the failure of these policies.
But this important lesson has not been learned. Even today, it is part of the conscious strategy of the trade unions to compensate for their lack of a stable foothold among women workers through symbolic actions and campaigns. To a certain extent, this also includes the project of a women's strike. The trade unions believed that by just announcing the strike they had found a shortcut that would save them the long-term, arduous but necessary work in building within women's sectors.
The huge enthusiasm of last Friday clearly shows the enormous force that the issue of women's oppression can trigger. However, it is disappointing that the preparations for this day of struggle have not been used to build up a long-term trade union base. In the end, 14 June was organised as a single, isolated day of action.
On 14 June 2019, the masses in Switzerland showed that they are prepared to fight for better living conditions. Nevertheless, it was impossible for the vast majority of workers in Switzerland to fight at their workplace. Lacking organisation, they could not show their bosses the real balance of power in the company. Hundreds of thousands of workers ready to fight could "only" take part in the massive demonstrations. The responsibility for this lies entirely with the trade unions.
The unions never even tried to turn 14 June into a real strike day. From the beginning, they mobilised exclusively for a day of action, involving demonstrations at the end of the day, as well as some small symbolic actions like a second coffee break at 11am.
The unions explained their lack of initiative with two excuses. On the one hand, according to the unions and the organisers of the women's strike, the people in Switzerland are "not ready for a strike", explaining that the lack of a strike tradition in Switzerland played an important role. They simply turn a blind eye to the fact that it is exactly their task to build up a strike tradition and thus prepare the workers for a strike.
The masses on 14 June have clearly indicated that they want to fight. When finally someone calls to fight, the energy is huge. To say that the workers are not ready is a massive underestimation. The lack of trust in the power of the working class is a crucial characteristic of the reformists.
The second excuse for the absence of strike mobilisations in the workplace is a huge amount of confusion regarding the strike as a fighting weapon. According to the feminist organisers, the "strike concept must be extended", since women's oppression does not only take place in the workplace. The "strike is manifold" was their slogan. This means that strikes can take place everywhere and everything and everyone can be struck. In particular, a domestic strike is just as effective for women's liberation as any other strike, they say. The aim is to "make visible" the precarious situation of women. Therefore the organisers also considered all actions as a strike, which "send a signal".
Strike as the most effective weapon of the working class
We must call this policy what it is: reformism, that is, an active obstacle to the further development of the struggles. With the focus on "making visible", it is assumed that we simply have to show how precarious the situation of women is. Once this has been done, the situation will change. However, they ignore the question of who constitutes the active force that changes society. In the end, the change is passed on to another authority, in reality to the bourgeois state. And thus to exactly those governments and parliaments that for decades have only adopted deteriorations and austerity measures. In other words: "Making visible" is an excuse!
We Marxists defend the principle that the working class can only free itself. The same applies to the oppression of women. In this inhuman system, the daily situation of women becomes more and more difficult. To working women, their own situation is not only "visible", but even physically unbearable. But nothing will change until they themselves, together, take up the fight against these conditions.
In the end, the question arises over what political practice really improves the lives of working women. Are we satisfied with tokenism and the instrumentalisation of the movement by reformist politicians, who in the end sell out for some hypocritical compromise in parliament, which they will present as a great victory for the movement? Or do we face reality and accept that, in the current period, only hard, real struggles will bring true improvements?
It is a fact that the workplace is the most effective place for women to organise themselves against oppression and capitalism. Nearly 80 percent of women in Switzerland do wage work. This means that the women are concentrated in the workplaces, which makes organisation far easier in that context. Organising women in households, i.e. a " strike of domestic work ", is much more difficult and inefficient. We are faced with 3.7 million isolated households. And above all, by organising in the workplace, we are directly attacking the capitalists, who benefit in several ways from the oppression of women.
There was thus a crystal-clear contradiction between the policies that are objectively necessary to combat women's oppression and the way in which 14 June was actually organised. This also explains the contradictory reaction of the Swiss bourgeoisie to the women's strike. The most conscious strata of the ruling class have always been proud that there are hardly any strikes in Switzerland, and wanted to defend this "achievement”. Magdalena Martullo-Blocher, a right-wing MP, billionaire and daughter of Christoph Blocher, historical leader of the right-wing Peoples Party, threatened her thousands of employees with the sack if they actually went on strike on 14 June. The same was true of other companies, such as the airline Swiss.
But most patrons and bourgeois politicians took a less-confrontational stance. They were aware that there was actually no danger of strike action at the workplaces. They publicly offered the occasional woman willing to participate in the opportunity to take a day off or to set flexible working hours. In doing so, they tried to present themselves as "progressive employers". Nevertheless, they all made sure to point out that the de facto ban on strikes in Switzerland should be respected. The tenor was similar in the bourgeois media.
In various articles and presentations, we have clearly opposed these and similar forms of "bourgeois feminism". But we must also make it clear that this supposedly benevolent behaviour of the bosses was only possible because they were not really challenged. Since there was no preparation in the workplaces on a clear class basis, the Swiss capitalists were never threatened by a real strike and thus hardly had to expose their true reactionary faces. For example, the world's largest capitalists, such as Credit Suisse, claimed that they wanted to enable all employees to participate "In Support of the Spirit of the Women's Strike". The bourgeoisie’s trivial interpretation of the struggle against the oppression of women is only the reflection of the harmless methods of the leading organisers of the women's strike!
Once again, the massive participation on 14 June has shown that the unions and organisers are clearly lagging behind the consciousness of the masses. The demands of the organising committees and the trade unions were completely invisible in the mass demos. The fact that the masses are beginning to ignore the passivity of the organisers is a very positive development.
But 14 June was also marked by a great lack of perspective. This is a direct consequence of the way in which the women's strike was organised, namely as a single, isolated day of action. Not a single organisation – apart from the Marxist tendency, Der Funke – posed the all-important question of how to continue the fight. The masses have shown their dedication in the struggle against the oppression of women. They are fully aware that sexism and precarious living conditions cannot be overcome in a single day. The working women and men in Switzerland are looking for answers!
The magic of 14 June
The lack of a strong trade union base did not prevent 14 June from becoming the biggest day of mobilisation in Switzerland in decades. Although it was not a real strike, there were still a few militant strike actions. The crèches in Geneva and Zurich were at the forefront of the struggle. The personnel had each organised at the workplace (mostly for the first time) and decided to effectively strike on 14 June. Due to the large proportion of women in the staff, the few men could not keep the crèches running on their own. So most crèches closed (earlier) that day. Everywhere in the country, even in small towns and villages, extended breaks, strike coffees and neighbourhood picnics took place.
But the demonstrations in the afternoon surpassed everything the vast majority of those present had ever experienced. From all directions, crowds of people flocked to the demonstration venues. From 3.24 p.m., many women (and men) did actually walk out of work, at the symbolic time that represented the moment after which women would not get paid, because of the 20 percent wage gap.
The mood at the demonstrations was one of enormous solidarity, and was very moving. A large group of Muslim women in Geneva, who had organised themselves in their community for the demonstration, was particularly electrifying. They chanted: "We want to do a good job, we want to get good wages for it, and shut the fuck up about our headscarves!" A large number of young school students was striking. They hate sexism, they hate the system, they want to fight both. Most of them had already participated in the climate strike demos. For the first time in decades, a whole generation of young people in Switzerland is having real fighting experiences in different movements! It also became clear that petty-bourgeois feminism did not find any ground in these masses. Men were welcomed everywhere in solidarity, the necessity to fight together was obvious.
Women's Strike 2019 – how to fight on?
Different strata of the population participated, which underlines the mass character. At first glance, the huge list of discriminations they denounced and the numerous demands raised form a diffuse picture. However, the contours reflect clearly the shared experiences of discrimination by working women and how the oppression of women penetrates deeply into everyday life. The conclusion is evident: The systemic character of women's oppression is by no means a purely theoretical question; it is a daily reality for millions of women in Switzerland. The solution to all these different demands lies in overcoming capitalism. And only the working class has the power to bring down this system!
In today's period of crisis, even small reforms can only be achieved with revolutionary methods. This means strikes and protests against the capitalist class! The revolutionary programme is therefore not one viable strategy among others, but the only consistent continuation of the demands of the women's strike movement.
With this trust in our ideas and in the working class, the members of the Swiss section of the IMT intervened on 14 June. Even before the demos were over, the current issue of our newspaper was sold out. In it, we explained that the struggles of women and for the climate must be united in the struggle against capitalism. All 500 copies of the new brochure "Women's strike 2019– How to continue the fight?" also sold out quickly. Throughout the day, we defended our demand for the socialisation of domestic work: free day nurseries for everyone, public laundries and canteens in neighbourhoods and workplaces. The demand addresses numerous problems that proletarian families, and especially women, in Switzerland experience on a daily basis. The socialisation of domestic work would be a milestone in the emancipation of women. But it is simply not possible under capitalism. That is also why the revolutionary struggle is a necessity!
14 June 2019 could be a turning point in the class struggle in Switzerland. Hundreds of thousands of workers and young people experienced their first mass struggle, which will undoubtedly have a great influence on their consciousness. They felt the power of the masses and class solidarity and they recognised that the oppression of women cannot be fought individually. This does not automatically push them to revolutionary conclusions, but it will have lasting effects on their consciousness.
The current wave of politicisation over the climate and the women's strikes represents a rupture with the low level of struggle in Switzerland. This confirms our perspective that, even in a seemingly calm country, we find turmoil under the surface; and that the youth and the most oppressed strata are radicalising. The fact that this discontent with the existing system and its numerous forms of oppression has not yet found political expression is only because the mass organisations of the working class are incapable of giving expression to this discontent.
The mass mobilisation of 14 June proves that the potential for Marxist ideas is huge. We must prepare for further waves of radicalisation, because the crisis-ridden capitalist system is incapable of improving people's living conditions. Der Funke, the Swiss section of the IMT, is doing everything it can to carry the urgently needed revolutionary programme into the movement and thus arm the working class for the coming struggles.
Or as a young female comrade put it:
"Just think back for a moment to 14 June, then you will know immediately why it is worthwhile and the necessity to fight day by day for the working class and the revolution".