Women have put on yellow vests and joined the demonstrations. Women who do double-shifts at home and at work to keep the creaking social state going for modest wages, as nurses, home care assistants, nursery workers and cleaners, usually out of sight, in the background.
Their participation is not a surprise; women are most of the staff of many vital but invisible sectors in a neoliberal society. They care, educate, support, and clear up the mess. Without these basic services, France would be paralysed. Who would take care of the elderly and babies? Such tasks shifted over the last century away from family, church and charities, and now they are only noticed when they are not done. Demand has grown, but the workers’ resources have shrunk, and something has snapped.
In the 20th century, miners and assembly-line workers, the sole family breadwinners, symbolised work so powerfully that the working class is still associated with masculinity; the term ‘proletariat’ is much less likely to be used to describe female workers. But the feminisation of the workforce is one of the most radical shifts of the past half-century, especially at the base of the pyramid.
Women are 51 per cent of France’s working-class labour; they were 35 per cent in 1968. The number of male employees has scarcely changed, from 13.3 million in 1968 to 13.7 million in 2017, but female workers have increased from 7.1 million to 12.9 million over the same period. Almost all the labour force growth has been in women, who often have less job security and earn 25 per cent less.
Is a union of female service workers possible?
In the 19th century, the industrial proletariat’s increasing power determined the strategy of the labour movement, but the huge growth of essential services staffed mainly by women, their potential power of veto and victories in social battles have not yet translated into political or union power.
Yet the surface is cracking. Under what circumstances could these sectors exert their as yet untested power? Can they create a cohesive group with strength to match its size, and build a social alliance capable of launching initiatives, asserting power and galvanising other sectors?
The idea might seem far-fetched. Female employees in essential services come from different social classes and work variously in the public or private sector, under diverse conditions, and sometimes in workplaces separated by considerable distances. But just as the absence of internal unity hasn’t stopped the yellow vests from banding together, what divides female service sector workers is less significant than what unites them.
The very nature of human services, care, social work and education makes these jobs not only indispensable, but also non-relocatable and unachievable, as they require prolonged human contact or special attention to each case.
All these sectors are suffering under austerity; in schools and old people’s homes, working conditions are deteriorating and grievances worsening. The public regards these workers highly, as they can imagine life without heavy industry but not without hospitals, schools, nurseries and retirement homes.
This unique profile delineates a potential social coalition that could bring together working-class workers in essential services, intermediate professions in the medical-social and education sectors, and even some in higher-status professions such as secondary school teachers.
Collective need vs the demand for profit
There are many obstacles, maybe because there have been few attempts to overcome them. Despite all the data available, no party, union or organisation in France has yet put this female, working-class demographic at the heart of its strategy, campaigned on its behalf, or prioritised the defence of its interests.
Yet the best organised and most aware people in the labour movement in the railways, ports, docks, electricity and chemicals sectors know that they cannot forever bear the brunt of decisive social struggles, as the conflict over railway reforms in 2018 showed. Over 40 years, they have witnessed how those in power destroy their power bases, break their regulations, privatise their companies and eliminate their jobs, while the media thinks industrial labour is archaic.
Sectors staffed by women in care and public services suffer from an often low level of organisation and have only recently engaged in disputes; but they are growing, and in the public imagination occupy a space from which the working class have long been excluded: the future.
The massive feminisation of the workforce is bringing about a change. The United StatesDepartment of Labor list of fastest growing occupations predicts the creation of jobs considered typically male, such as wind or solar power installer, oil rig worker, and programmer; but also jobs traditionally done by women such as home carer, care worker, healthcare assistant, nurse, physiotherapist, and occupational therapist. They estimate that a million software development jobs will be created by 2026 (which are likely to go to a predominantly male workforce), but four million home helps and care workers will be needed, on salaries 25 per cent of those in IT.
Better trained but less well paid
There has been a dramatic rise in women’s educational attainment, which facilitates professional mobility. This major but little remarked transformation further confirms women’s place at the heart of the workforce. Since 2000, the majority of graduates have been female: 56 per cent in France, 58 per cent in the US and 66 per cent in Poland, according to Unesco. But men still predominate in research, high-prestige sectors and powerful jobs, and at the top of the salary scale. Universities are training female graduates likely to get service sector jobs that require qualifications.
This shift has not challenged the preponderance of men in fields related to maths, IT and science. As a result, there is a growing gender and class divide between the poles of the economic world. There is the female world, where workers are increasingly qualified but have less job security in medical, social and educational services. And there is the middle-class bubble of speculative finance and new technology, which command the world economy and are exceptionally male-dominated: 88 per cent of Silicon Valley start-up software engineers are male, as are 82 per cent of financial analysts.
These worlds are opposites: one dominates the other, oppressing and dispossessing it. The markets’ extortion through austerity and the digital giants’ predation on public finances through tax evasion translate into fewer staff and resources in old people’s homes, nurseries and social services. And the impacts are unevenly distributed: bankers, decision-makers and developers’ actions weaken public finances, but they still employ staff at home.
Business leaders, managers and other professionals use many personal services. They would be the first affected if service providers (who in big cities are often immigrants) decided collectively to strike. Would sociologists, lawyers, doctors and gender studies teachers tell their domestic workers that they ought to keep working out of a moral obligation to care and what a patriarchal society sees as specifically female virtues? This is why a coalition of service sector workers that brought together employees, intermediary professions and teachers would have to be formed in opposition to the classes who employ them.
Forging a collective conscience and a political project
Female workers are often isolated, with little opportunity to organise. They are more likely than average to be immigrants, subject to multiple oppressions. Simply adding together their numbers does not make them a mobilised group: that would require collective consciousness and a political project. Two things could change this.
The first is this group’s centrality to the economy and society. Everything from the statistics bureau to the media helps make such female workers invisible in the production system. Political discourse relegates care, health and education to the category of an expense, and ‘interpersonal’ jobs are associated with the supposedly female qualities of care and empathy. That a woman in a caring or teaching job uses such qualities at work does not mean that is all she is or does. Considering essential services as costs, referring to benefits dispensed by dedicated women rather than wealth created by female workers makes it possible to ignore that the care worker, domestic worker and primary school teacher are producers.
A social consciousness could crystallise around the idea that these women produce a form of wealth that underpins the foundations of collective life.
The second factor is a need common to the whole workforce, but expressed with particular intensity in hospitals, schools and old people’s homes: the resources to do a good job. The public does not pay much attention to working conditions on the railways or in warehouses, but concern may even turn to protest when care for a dependent parent is at stake, a rural maternity unit closes or understaffing affects mental healthcare. Everyone knows from experience that the quality of care is enhanced when more labour is invested in it. But the simple demand for adequate resources to carry out a task in decent conditions is an aggressive one. Responding to it would be an affront to austerity, which is the idea that ever more can be done with ever less, and output gains can be achieved at the cost of workers’ health.
Male domination ‘tears apart the social fabric’, while women weave it
The coalition would, besides achieving self-organisation, have the historic task, helped by the union movement, of rallying the whole working class, especially men whose livelihood has been taken away by globalisation.
It may seem unrealistic to allot such a historic role and universal mission to oppressed women. But the ‘realists’ who in 2016 thought the election of Donald Trump impossible were wrong: his oppositional strategy was to form a coalition to appeal to working-class men affected by deindustrialisation, the conservative bourgeoisie and the non-graduate middle class.
The media and politicians love the idea of reducing western societies to an antagonism between a working class that is conservative, masculine, outdated, uneducated, racist and voted for Trump, Binyamin Netanyahu or Viktor Orbán, and a liberal, educated, open, progressive middle class that votes for centrist and central parties epitomised by the likes of President Emmanuel Macron.
This convenient opposition conceals the common enthusiasm of leaders on both sides for market capitalism; the female service workforce highlights a different antagonism.
Silicon Valley’s tech bosses and senior management in finance are male, graduates and neoliberal; looters of public resources and squatters in tax havens, they create and sell services which, according to former vice-president for user growth at Facebook Chamath Palihapitiya, “are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works”. Their opposition comes from providers of services that constitute public life and demand a greater socialisation of wealth: the sharp end of the workforce.
The story of their struggle might begin with a demand for resources to do the job well. Domestic workers, nursery workers, care workers, nurses, teachers, cleaners and admin staff warn that unless their demands are met, they will strike. Suddenly, all their unseen work is visible. Managers and professionals, women first and then, reluctantly, men, have to stop working to look after dependent parents and children. Emotional blackmail fails. Government, offices and newsrooms empty out. Visiting a retirement home, the French prime minister patronisingly tells a female striker that research proves it only takes a minute to change a nappy. The look on her face reveals the clash of worlds. After five days of chaos, the government gives in. Negotiations on the creation of a Universal Public Service begin and the dynamic is suddenly so powerful than the movement becomes a ‘second popular front’. That of the service age.