"Work": In Search of a New Slogan
by Nina Power
July 30, 2010
In 1972 Selma James, founder of the International Wages
for Housework Campaign and, more recently, Global
Women's Strike, wrote the following: "We demand the
right to work less." Her reasoning was clear -- when
women work for a wage for 40 hours a week and still
carry the weight of childcare and housework, what is
the moral value in expecting them to toil away at the
cost of their health and happiness? Why should anyone,
male or female, work more than 20 hours a week?
Thirty-seven years later a new campaign has been
launched, backed by a host of trade unions, including
the UCU, PCS, CWU, RMT, NUJ and NUT, under the name
Right to Work. What has happened to our understanding
of work in the decades between James's slogan and new
forms of opposition? In the middle of a recession in
which jobs are being slashed with alacrity, should we
be clinging on to employment at any cost, or should we
instead be reconsidering what it means to work at all?
The campaign is not, of course, about holding on to any
job, no matter how exploitative. It aims instead to
bring together all of those who want to organise
against coalition attacks on jobs and public services.
It is about resisting the so-called austerity measures
-- pay cuts, worsening conditions and pension reform.
The model of work presupposed by Right to Work is a
worthy, classical one: there are workers and unions,
and the unions campaign on behalf of their members, who
in turn exhibit solidarity with others, and strike when
The cuts will make Right to Work's job harder but
increasingly important. Yet something subtle has
happened since James's original demand -- and it
involves depressing changes to the nature of work, and
of women's relation to it in particular. When James
demanded that everyone "work less", it was part of a
set of proposals that included a guaranteed income for
everyone, equal pay and free, community-run nurseries
Making clear the link between housework and paid work,
such that unwaged labour must be counted as work and
rewarded as such, James's vision is an integrated
picture of the relation between (human) reproduction
and (industrial) production. And we can say that in an
incomplete and negative way, some of James's demands
have been met. Sure, you can work a 20-hour week to
look after your child -- just don't expect to be able
to live on the money! Sure, we'll pay lip service to
equal pay, but we won't give it to you.
The mass entry of women into the workforce has
corresponded with an overall stagnation or diminution
of wages. It is as if employers have taken the very
worst aspects of women's work in the past -- poorly
paid, precarious, without benefits -- and applied it to
almost everyone, except those at the very top, who
remain overwhelmingly male and incomprehensibly rich.
This is equality as a race to the bottom. Feminism is
not wrong to see the economic autonomy of women as
central to their political and social freedom, but we
do a disservice to its aims if we believe that it is
enough to have a job, regardless of what it is. The
supposed opposition between the desire for motherhood
and the desire for a career, for instance, obscures the
reality of the situation in which many mothers work
because they have to, that childcare is punitively
expensive -- and that this "choice" is usually no
choice at all.
At the heart of the socialist feminism of the 1970s was
a reasonable plea: work should be equally and
adequately rewarded, but it should not be what defines
us. There is, on the other hand, a rather British
attitude towards work that sees it as a kind of
purgatorial moral obligation. The retrenchment of
attacks on the unemployed (such as ITV's Fairy
Jobmother) are the froth on a deeper mood that at once
blames and resents those without work ("get a
haircut!"). The Right to Work campaign, although
vital, plays into this attitude that work is the
ultimate mark of a man or, in more recent decades, a
Thinking of a world with less but better work, or even
no work at all (as we currently understand it),
particularly in the midst of an economic crisis, is
impractical, of course. Yet thinking about
alternatives to the current system, however
unfathomable, may help us to break with much that is
wrong about our everyday existence. In Italy in the
1970s, workers under the banner of a "refusal of work"
shut down noxious chemical plants and paid only what
they felt was appropriate for their utilities bills.
This perhaps seems quite mad today, but it is a lot
more fulfilling than working even harder for less so
that those at the top can keep more.
Nina Power is a senior lecturer in philosophy at
Roehampton University and the author of One Dimensional
Woman (Zer0 Books). This article was first published
in the Guardian on 29 July 2010; it is reproduced here
for non-profit educational purposes.
PortsideLabor aims to provide material of interest to
people on the left that will help them to interpret the
world and to change it.
Submit material: email [log in to unmask]
Frequently asked questions: portside.org/faq
Subscribe: email [log in to unmask], subject 'portsidelabor subscribe'
Unsubscribe: email [log in to unmask], subject 'portsidelabor unsubscribe'
Account assistance: portside.org/contact