My Fight as a Worker and as a Feminist During COVID-19
Dispatches from the Frontlines of Care
April 28, 2020
We are proud to have a strong analytical focus on social reproduction at Spectre. The current pandemic is tragically proving that which social reproduction theorists have long emphasized: that work needed to sustain life and life-making, such as nursing, teaching, cleaning—in other words, care work—is essential for any society to function. Indeed, it is care work that makes all other work possible.
A social reproduction focus, however, is not simply a philosophical position. It is simultaneously a political project. This is why during this time of crisis, we want our readers to hear the voices of workers fighting on the frontlines of care. The work of nurses, refuse workers, teachers, and farmworkers, among others, is sustaining us through this crisis. Our series, “Dispatches from the Frontlines of Care,” is designed to remind ourselves that it is the roles of stockbroker and corporate executive that are disposable, and we want a world where they remain so.
If you have a story for us, please write to the series editor, Tithi Bhattacharya, at email@example.com.
I am both a factory worker and a feminist: the struggle I have been involved in for the past weeks was a woman’s struggle both inside and outside the factory, though its public narrators have often been men.
In mid-February, the news of COVID-19 began to spread in Italy, yet it remained a distant echo, almost imperceptible, routinely downplayed. But within days, bosses began to confront us with an unacceptable choice: to choose between work and our own health. The ensuing conflict has been extremely harsh with workers fighting again and again for the right to health and safety in the workplace. Even in sectors with no job securities and benefits, workers have fought the bosses to demand that their health and that of their families be taken seriously.
The pandemic has highlighted the contradictions between production and social reproduction, making the various forms of oppression as well as the cracks in the system more apparent. I will tell the story of our struggles, but I will do so from the viewpoint of women workers, who in addition to facing the choice between health and work also have to carry the usual burden of domestic labor and childcare, a greatly increased burden due to school lockdowns.
On February 24, the WHO sent a pamphlet to all productive sites detailing the procedures to be followed to contain the contagion as well as emphasizing the necessity of providing workers with PPE (Personal Protective Equipment). Three days later, on the 27th, the epidemic became a crisis. The government asked companies to provide workers with PPE, but they were either unavailable or hard to find. Nevertheless, production continued while the contagion skyrocketed.
In my factory, they checked our temperature before putting us to work. We are three hundred workers, placed on twenty lines, with only two inches distance between us; it was seriously scary. For women, the situation was even worse, for we had to jostle to make sure our elderly parents and relatives as well as our children, at home from school, were taken care of. Meanwhile, the government announced further lockdown measures and shelter-in-place orders, but without any provisions for women workers who continued to go to work while having their domestic burden doubled.
At my factory, during the breaks, we started discussing how this crisis increased women’s specific burdens. How we were having to risk our lives by coming to work while also having to wake up at 4:30am to make sure that our households were taken care of. Our rage began to mount, especially as we began to discuss the utter insufficiency of the safety procedures in place. We breathed the same air, were crowded in the same rooms. The virus became a tangible reality for us: each one of us could be a carrier and each one of us hoped that she was not the one.
It should come as no surprise then that it was us women who were the first to take action. We used WhatsApp and social media to start spreading the word. Our demand: either the company stops production or we will go on strike.
At the beginning of March, workers in fifteen factories refused to work in these dangerous conditions, without face masks or dividers. By March 6, thirty-nine factories were on strike, and on March 10, the strikes and blockades spread like wildfire across the country.
At this point, unions, compelled by the spontaneous strikes and protests organized by rank and file workers, were forced to ask the government to engage in open bargaining. On March 13, radical unions called for a general strike that would mobilize delivery services, the service and cleaning sectors, and factories. The next day, the main unions finally met with the government, which accepted our original demand to stop all non-essential production beginning March 15.
But the struggle was far from over. Immediately after the government announcement, thousands of companies rushed in to be acknowledged as an exception to the rule, asking to remain open. The Italian business council (Confindustria) added its powerful voice to protest the lockdown because “the global market demands it.” The Confindustria continued its pressure on the government, and when the government announced that the ban on non-essential production would be extended until May 3, Confindustria complained bitterly and, in Tuscany, even flies the flag at half-mast in protest.
This is an insult to all those who have died from COVID-19 and a slap in the face for those of us who continue to work in factories, risking being infected and ending up in an ICU. The arrogance of the bosses, who want to continue to make profits that we will only see tiny crumbs of, at the risk of our lives, forces us to ask ourselves the question, “Do we really want to continue living like this?”
We realize that our fight for our lives and our rights in the coming period is not going to be easy. We should never forget how the moment the working class started fighting back in Italy, the bosses immediately made it clear that they were ready to retaliate.
What we are living through is a genuine class war, a war in which women workers are taking the biggest hit, whether they work in a factory, in a supermarket, in a hospital, in an office or at home: everything is bearing down on us and we are at the forefront of the struggle.
One of the struggles in the service sector borrowed the feminist slogan of the movement, Non una di meno: “If our lives are not valued, we stop.” We have to begin again from this point. We will continue to fight because we cannot be asked to choose between our health and work. Another way of doing things is necessary and urgent because capitalism and patriarchy produce exploitation and death and it’s time to say, “No longer!”