Clara Zetkin and Rosa Luxemburg

Bourgeois society is not fundamentally opposed to the bourgeois women’s movement… – Clara Zetkin

On International Women’s Day 2012, most of the women of this country are in deep shit.

Creepy anti-choicers are all up in our uteri (hey, how about a cute and cuddly mascot — “Womby”? — to remind everybody that those are our parts). The murders and disappearances of Aboriginal women, not to mention the pollution, plunder and poverty on First Nations lands, are still being met with official indifference. Austerity for women’s groups started years ago. Apparently, our economy is so fragile it’s gonna keel over coughing blood like a Louisa May Alcott character if old ladies don’t give up their pensions. Lisa Raitt is Harper’s Dalek, careening around blatting “I’LL LEGISLATE! I’LL LEGISLATE!” every time a job action is brewing that shows workers’ collective strength (remember, kids, there’s a direct correlation between women’s wages and being unionized). We’re getting softened up for the next round of “The Rich Take It All.” You don”t really deserve that pension, now do you? Or, maybe you do, but your children don’t. And child care? HA! Lady, if you haven’t got thousands to fork over each month, duct tape them to the wall while you work.

And unions, trying to fan that spark of energy that lit up the world in the spring and fall of last year, have not really been able to do a whole lot about any of this so far. Union density is not as feeble as it is in the States, but the numbers of unionized workers here are steadily shrinking. We’re outsourced, laid off, scarce in the private sectors, castigated in the public. A war on the collectivity of working people is being waged every day, the Two Minutes Hate brought to you by the rich old scowlsters who run the business news. This hurts women most of all because women benefit from good unionized jobs and the protections against discrimination negotiated by unions.

But it’s International Women’s Day: why aren’t I just wearing my purple scarf, sipping frilly-tinis and doing feel-good womany stuff with other women? Because the raison d’etre of this day, proclaimed by a socialist feminist as a day for voicing the demands of women of the working class back in 1910, has been obscured and co-opted by bourgeois and professional institutions and organizations, that’s why. It’s turned in some ways into the “pink inc.” co-optation of breast cancer, a Hallmark Holiday for feminism that leaves the machines of power humming while their tenders pause to “reflect” or “honour” certain women. And that pisses me off because the conditions for most women around the world are shameful.

I do think we have to celebrate feminist achievements on IWD. In fact, to that end, I’ve volunteered on IWD organizing committees and helped come up with the idea of a “Femmy Awards” here in Ottawa to honour local feminists. We never give our feminists enough credit. Case in point: the woman who thought of International Women’s Day, Clara Zetkin. But let’s not just toast her with a frilly-tini and purr about wonderful fabulous strong women, etc. etc.. Let’s honour Zetkin’s vision of a day where feminists won’t just ask for a law here and a policy there, but will call for a thorough, systematic and ongoing transformation of society. IWD really shouldn’t be about enacting stale rituals, like the obligatory March 8th media column, musing on whether feminism is dead as though it’s humping a reanimated corpse. Come on, that’s so 1800s.

Speaking of stale rituals, when unions occupy public space, we all know what’s going to happen; a brisk, cheerful trot through the downtown, with sound systems and flags a-waving. We end up somewhere spacious and a sea of faces is gratifyingly lifted to the speakers at the front; so many speakers, so little time! We’re on our lunch hours and we’ve got to get back! When the speakers finish, if any of us have heard them over the blatting of the sound system and in between the familiar, hackneyed chants; Hey hey! ho ho! It’s back to work we go!

This spectacle still manages to be transformative, not because of the monotonous chants and the endless speakers. It is transformative in spite of these things. It is transformative because large numbers of people come out, because they show up en masse on the streets, because they greet each other, share information, lay plans, laugh at each others’ signs, distribute pamphlets and newsletters, organize, talk about a better world… all those things Occupy was trying to make more or less a permanent fixture of public life in North America.

The labour movement here, with some noteworthy exceptions, has been generally risk-averse and conformity-minded for a long time. Partly this is because we made our deal with the powers that be back in the 40s with the “postwar compromise” where unions agreed to circumscribe their right to strike in exchange for legalized processes of collective bargaining, grievance-arbitrations and dues check-off. A strong concern for playing by the rules has been part of labour’s culture ever since. But it’s way past time to think about the end of the “postwar compromise” in this country because it’s over and there’s never going to be any peace for labour with our rulers. They have torn up the rulebook and scattered it to the winds. They shamelessly interfere in collective bargaining, skew labour legislation like they’re tipping a pinball machine. We’re getting our asses kicked because the bosses bent the rules and bought the referees. So, why are we even still playing with them?

I suspect this question is why alliances continue to grow between some in the labour movement and Occupy groups. It’s been wonderful to see the new energy on the picket lines and the occupations of politicians’ offices that are the fruits of this work. Now some have remembered what May Day was all about and are calling for a general strike on May 1st..

I know how much work it would take, but we’ve got to start somewhere. Our letters and our lobbies go unheeded; we need something bigger. Let’s keep building alliances with all the communities and well-intentioned people who were lit up and revealed to us in the flare of the Occupy movement, whether they were camping, critiquing or somewhere in between. I think as feminists, we should roll up our sleeves and make it happen. Time to end the labour peace because we are being invaded.

A general strike on May Day. There’s time to plan. As Rosie the Riveter said: We can do it. Now there’s some feel-good womany stuff!

Aalya Ahmad

Aalya Ahmad

Aalya Ahmad has a PhD in comparative literature, a crush on George Orwell and a rather impressive collection of cloth bags from the various public service unions she has worked with over the years....