Friday, September 11, 2009

Women workers are powerful

Bearing the brunt of economic crisis

By Gavrielle Gemma

Published Sep 10, 2009 11:10 PM

Women workers, employed or employed, don’t need statistics to know how bad things are. The prices of basic necessities—rent, food, utilities, transportation, health care and child care—are way up. Our wages are falling or stagnant. Even small wage increases provided in union contracts don’t make up for rising costs. However, we do need to know the statistical big picture to decide what to do about it.

Before that, we need to know our potential power in the U.S. economy. There are 68 million women working, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. These numbers leave out millions of undocumented workers, and those who work in the informal economy or “off the books,” where we clean, do laundry, help with family care and do any work we can find.

We continue to earn 20 percent less than men in the overall economy do, with oppressed women earning less than that in disproportionate numbers. Though we work in every industry, we remain concentrated in secretarial, receptionist and other clerical jobs; in health care and teaching jobs; in public employment; and in retail sales. However, we are 150 percent potentially more powerful in our strategic roles in society.

It’s easy to find statistics on our wages by industry. Finding out how much wealth our labor creates is very hard. It’s clear that the capitalists do not want us to understand that our labor power produces gargantuan profits—and that we could shut the country down!

In 2002, the U.S. Census Bureau reported $3 trillion in retail sales. Wages were $302 billion. So that’s 10 percent of retail revenue, because a trillion is one thousand billion.

Sales in health care came to $1.2 trillion. Wages amounted to $495 billion, or 41 percent of revenue. Without us, there would be no revenue at all. Even counting the cost of facilities, equipment and supplies, it’s obvious how badly we’re being ripped off.

We cannot leave out our unpaid labor in home production. Unpaid labor is anything you could pay someone else to do like cleaning, shopping and food preparation, taking care of family members, or home construction. The amount of time we spend on this is rapidly growing, as we cannot afford to hire anyone to do the work.

At a Dec. 1, 2005, lecture at the University of Massachusetts, Professor Diane Elson explained that unpaid work is in effect a big subsidy to the profit industries, allowing businesses “to reduce the wage costs of social reproduction” of workers and reduce public programs. According to writer David Bollier, one study estimated that the value of unpaid work in Britain equals 77 percent of the gross domestic product, but it is not counted. (onthecommons.org)

Unemployment is hitting women hard. It rose 76 percent among Latina workers since last year, and increased 52 percent for African-American women. Millions of workers are not even counted in the unemployment or underemployment statistics. Immigrants, domestic workers and those in the informal economy are the hardest hit. In some communities, young people face the disaster of 75 percent unemployment.

Women are more undercounted than men in the unemployment statistics; the rate of women workers who are too discouraged to look for work rose 90 percent in the last year. We are also 10 percent less likely to get benefits. Discrimination against pregnant women, mothers returning to work and lesbian workers is rising rapidly.

Women are imprisoned in ever greater numbers. Some women are entering the military because they can’t find any other job during this economic crisis.

Poverty is soaring for families where single women head up households.Employed or unemployed, they are hardest hit by foreclosures. That’s not because they are single but because they can’t live on one income.

With the 1996 Clinton administration destruction of welfare, which was itself a different kind of unemployment benefit, women are getting below minimum wage for forced workfare labor. Time limits and restrictions are keeping newly unemployed women workers from receiving these benefits, which have been cut to the bone. Some women have even been forced to give up their children into the wretched foster care systems.

We say no!

Why should we put up with a $12 trillion bailout to the banks that are giddy with joy over their rising profits, while we have a jobless, impoverished “recovery” for workers? Why should we put up with an unemployment rate that is rising even faster for women than for men due to cuts in retail, service and public employment?

Why should we stand for 30 million people being unemployed or underemployed? Or for our jobs being outsourced to countries where our sisters are making pennies in horrendous sweatshops, which then forces many women and children into the global sex market?

Why should we stand for this assault on our lives?

Trillions for the banks, nothing for us. Even if you are still working, your family and communities are engulfed by unemployment.

We shouldn’t put up with any of this.

We women workers should stand tall and flex our collective muscles to demand what is rightfully ours. On Sept. 20, thousands will march in Pittsburgh to demand a massive public jobs program preceding the meeting of the G-20, an international group of bankers and finance ministers.

Get on the bus or contact the March for Jobs to see what you can do. Call 212-633-6646 in New York City or 412-780-3813 in Pittsburgh.

Gemma is a member of the Women’s Fightback Network in New York City.

Sources: National Women’s Law Center and the Institute for Women’s Policy Research


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