The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

In the Bullseye of the Pandemic and in the Frontline of Workers’ History

Mar 28, 2022

On Sunday, March 6, at a meeting organized by The Spark, two women who ran for U.S. Congress as Working Class Party candidates, Andrea Kirby and Kathy Goodwin, addressed the situation of women workers. They shared the hidden history of International Women’s Day and highlighted the role women played in the Phelps-Dodge Miner’s Strike in Arizona and the BCBS Strike in Michigan. The following is an excerpt of their presentation focused on the weight of the pandemic on working women.

Now let’s get to the gaps between working men and women that the pandemic has brought to the forefront. There is a gap in the risk of bringing COVID home to the family, because of the work women do. In the U.S., slightly more men than women have died of COVID. Yet a lot of the workplace stress of COVID has fallen on women.

According to a study about the pandemic by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, 64% of frontline workers are female. Here are some of the main job categories this study looked at: 1.) grocery store workers; 2.) clerical workers; 3.) nurses, other healthcare and childcare workers; 4.) housekeepers or cleaning industry workers; 5.) warehousing and trucking workers; 6.) bus drivers and public transportation workers; 7.) postal service workers; 8.) fast food workers and 9.) emergency services and community workers.

Only one category had many more men than women—warehousing and trucking. Another category for COVID exposure—manufacturing—has about two-thirds men and one-third women and it really should have been included here. Restaurant workers, at 52% female, and teachers, at 76% female, should also have been included. All these jobs were called essential at the height at the pandemic, although they were NOT treated as such.

More Than Just a Pay Gap

So, as we approach International Women’s Day, let us be reminded the fight for women’s equality is far from over. During this month, the media may focus on wage disparities, but we all know that even after decades-long struggles, women’s wages are NOT equal to men. Women struggle every day for equality of more than just wages. So, while the pandemic has put pressure on every person in this society, the pandemic has highlighted the continued disparity and pressure on women.

In the first year of the pandemic, an estimated 5 million women left the U.S workforce, a number significantly higher than men. Many were women who were working multiple part time jobs and women working full time, earning $11 an hour or less—poverty wages.

We have seen three major exploitations of women during this pandemic, the first of course is the lesser pay and benefits for women doing the same job as a man. Second, would be the enormous amounts of unpaid labor needed to raise children and run a household. Women report 30 or more hours per week spent on cooking, cleaning, shopping, childcare, and of course love and support. Men reported about 20 hours spent doing the same thing. And lastly, during this pandemic, women have been asked to take on additional jobs: teacher, lunch lady, and at home custodian. Virtual or online learning requires adult supervision and most often women filled the job.

The first year of the pandemic saw a sharp increase in the number of women in the U.S who died during pregnancy or shortly after giving birth. A New York Times article quoted a study by the National Center for Health Statistics, which “found that the number of maternal deaths rose 14%, to 861 in 2020 from 754 in 2019." That is 23.8 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2020. To understand how outrageous this is, let’s compare it to other developed countries such as Norway and New Zealand with fewer than 2 deaths per 100,000 live births! Or to France and Canada with less than 9 deaths per 100,000 births! Prior to COVID, the U.S. already had one of the highest maternal mortality rates among developed countries. COVID just made it worse. We are one of the richest countries in the world, yet we still haven’t found a way to provide safe obstetric care.

Progress Through Struggle

The progress women have made has always come through struggle, a struggle we continue today over our bodies. The right to abortion or the right to have health insurance cover contraception have come with a price. It meant that women and men have had to stand up to religious, legal, and political prejudices in society. Many women have always refused to accept to be put in “their place”.

In 1973, the Supreme Court recognized, in Roe v. Wade, that women had certain rights to choose an abortion. In 1976, Democrats held the majority in Congress and passed legislation to block Medicaid from paying for abortion. What was praised as a win for women was immediately attacked and poor women were the first target. As we can see now, they didn’t stop there. Over the past 50 years, the attacks have rolled us back so far, we are back in court asking for the same rights over our bodies that we did with Roe v. Wade.

Today, most women don’t have direct access to abortion care or other reproductive healthcare. There are no medical facilities or doctors to perform abortions in 90% of all U.S. counties. There are six states with only one facility in their state; 27 major cities are without a women’s care facility, and in rural areas there are none. This is an attack on women—especially working-class women that can’t afford to get someplace where abortion is legal. Women will not establish the right to control what happens to their bodies without fighting for themselves—again!

To share a personal story, Kathy explained that her grandmother was so happy to see abortion made legal in 1973. She said that in her lifetime she was happy to see women no longer treated like dogs. Her grandmother was told as a young girl she could not go to high school. Her father, who came from the old country, did not value a high school education for girls. The grandmother took a beating for trying to go to school. She ran away from home. She found a place to live with the superintendent of schools. She looked after that family’s children. She was able to go to high school. Later in life, her father apologized for being caught up in the old ways and they reconciled.

Working women, to not be pushed backward, must learn how to fight. Look at the strike at Phelps-Dodge in 1983 in Arizona. Look at the strike at BCBS in 1987 in Michigan. The working class of the whole country was in that first decade of what has now become almost 50 years of the standard of living for the working class going backward, going down. In both strikes, women fought hard and then appealed to the rest of the working class to take up their fight, to join them, to take the fight further. Did prejudice of male workers—not to want to follow the leadership of women—play a role in the fight not being picked up and spreading? It is impossible to know. Maybe the time just was not right. But how about now. Is the time right? Are workers going to let the divisions that have been around for hundreds, even thousands of years, stop us from improving our standard of living?