“Work”: In Search of a New Slogan

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 necessary.

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 and childcare.

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 woman too.

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.

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