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A Day Without Care

What does it mean to strike when “production” isn’t the production of widgets, but care for children, the ill, disabled, or elderly?

Holyoke-Hirsch

Illustration by Maxwell Holyoke-Hirsch

“A hundred years ago [Benjamin] Franklin said that six hours a day was enough for anyone to work and if he was right then, two hours a day ought to be enough now.”

Lucy Parsons spoke those words in 1886, shortly before the execution of her husband, Albert. The two had been leaders in the eight-hour-day movement in Chicago, which culminated in a general strike, a rally, and the throwing of a bomb into the crowd in Haymarket Square. Albert Parsons, along with three other “anarchists,” was hanged for the crime, though he’d already left the rally by the time the bomb was thrown. Lucy kept up the fight for the rest of her life, working with anarchists, socialists, the Industrial Workers of the World, and the Communist Party for the cause.

Women like Lucy Parsons were at the heart of the struggle for the shorter work week, an integral part of the labor movement until the end of the Depression, which saw the forty-hour week enshrined in law after the defeat of Hugo Black’s thirty-hour-week bill. As Kathi Weeks writes in “‘Hours for What We Will’: Work, Family and the Movement for Shorter Hours” in Feminist Studies 35, after World War ii, the demand for shorter hours was increasingly associated with women workers, and was mostly sidelined as the forty-hour week became an institution.

“Not only wages — I am thinking here of the ‘female wage’ and the ‘family wage’ — but hours, too, were constructed historically with reference to the family,” Weeks notes. The eight-hour day and five-day week presumed that the worker was a man supported by a woman in the home, and it shaped expectations that his work was important and should be decently paid, while women’s work was not really work at all (even though, as Weeks notes, the gender division of labor was supported by some paid domestic work, done largely by women of color). The postwar labor movement focused on overtime pay and wages, leaving the women’s issue of shorter hours mostly forgotten.

But the power of the eight-hour-day movement was that it didn’t require the worker to love her job, to identify with it for life, and to take pride in it in order to organize for better conditions. The industrial union movement rose up to organize those left out of the craft unions, the so-called “unskilled” workers who recognized that they were not defined by their work and that they wanted to be liberated from it as much as possible. That, in their minds, was what made them worthy of respect, not their skill level or some intrinsic identity.

The fight for shorter hours unified workers across gender and race, class and nationality, skill and ability. It did not require the valorization of “man’s work” or the idealization of women’s natural goodness.


It is a curious fact that in today’s climate of increased work for less pay, some of the highest-profile strikes of the last year have called for more hours. As labor and its supporters cheered the strikers at Walmart and at New York’s fast-food restaurants, it was taken for granted that these part-time workers (some two-thirds of them women) should be calling for more work.

Part-time work and flexible time have been touted as solutions to the problem of “work-family balance,” which is somehow only ever considered to be a woman’s problem. In the postwar era, as Erin Hatton writes in The Temp Economy, temp agencies pushed part-time temp work as a great, flexible option for women who wanted to earn a little extra “pin money.” The temp agencies’ low pay was acceptable because the workers were presumed to be married, not “real workers” who needed a family-supporting wage. Hatton notes that by the 1980s, temp agencies were spreading their model of work, with its low wages and part-time schedules — formerly associated with women — into the rest of the economy, contributing to what Leah Vosko calls a “feminization” of work in the entire economy.

In To Serve God and Wal-Mart, Bethany Moreton shows how Walmart too built its global empire on the backs of part-time women workers, capitalizing on the skills of white Southern housewives who’d never worked for pay before but who saw the customer service work they did at Walmart as an extension of the Christian service values they held dear. Those women didn’t receive a living wage because they were presumed to be married; today, Walmart’s workforce is much more diverse yet still expected to live on barely more than minimum wage.

The end of welfare in the 1990s pushed poor women into low-wage part-time jobs that neither paid them enough to support their families nor provided benefits. Flexibility — considered a good thing when granted to those at the top of the ladder — is now a a demand on workers, like those at Walmart who are scheduled by a computer that predicts staffing levels based on the previous year’s sales, regardless of their needs or family commitments. Single mothers who work low-wage jobs have to hold their entire week open — and waste money on complicated child care arrangements — because they never know whether they’ll be scheduled for five or twenty-five hours. This makes it difficult to hold down two jobs and puts part-timers in a crunch if they have to worry about child care. To gain any hope of a full-time position or access to promotions, workers must be available around the clock — though in practice they rarely get enough hours to pay the bills.

Weeks notes that certain jobs are constructed as part-time because they are generally done by women. “Work time, including ‘full-time,’ ‘part-time,’ and ‘overtime,’ is a gendered construct,” she argues, “established and maintained through recourse to a heteronormative family ideal centered around a traditional gender division of labor.” And in For Love And Money, Candace Howes, Carrie Leana, and Kristin Smith point out that part-time work reduces job attachment — each additional hour per week increases a worker’s odds of remaining in the workforce by 2 percent.

The structure of benefits, too, is built around a heteronormative model, assuming that a full- time male worker gets health insurance through his job and that a part-timer doesn’t need such things. There is no definition, under the Fair Labor Standards Act, of what a “part-time” worker actually is.

So we see workers striking for more hours as well as better pay, rather than demanding that they be paid a living wage for those few hours. The eight-hour movement, it should be remembered, demanded eight hours’ work for ten hours’ pay; a lessening of working time without a corresponding decrease in wages. Both men and women who worked too much embraced this demand. Today, we see workers demanding full-time employment in order to be taken seriously as much as to make more money.

“Women’s work,” Lisa Ruchti notes in her study of hospital nursing Catheters, Slurs, and Pickup Lines, is a term used by sociologists to indicate the correlation between the jobs that women do and the jobs that pay less and offer fewer opportunities to advance. “Feminist economists,” she notes, “have argued that part of the reason women’s work does not pay well is that it emphasizes tasks women ‘should’ do naturally.” She further notes that it is useful to distinguish work historically done by women from work that is gendered feminine.

We see examples of this emphasis in Moreton’s work on Walmart, in the way the women working as clerks were presumed to be naturally good at helping customers, while men were presumed to be natural managers and quickly promoted. (Liza Featherstone documents the groundbreaking lawsuit by Walmart women in her book Selling Women Short: The Landmark Battle for Women’s Rights at Walmart.)

Ruchti points out that women have historically been idealized as “naturally (i.e., biologically) more domestic, submissive, pious, and pure than men,” and that nursing and teaching were held out to them as careers that allowed them to exercise their natural talents. Dana Goldstein has written about how the romanticization of women’s natural goodness was used to mask the real reason that women teachers were sought when the US public school system was founded: they’d work for lower wages.

Howes, Leana, and Smith note that studies of pay by occupation found that “interactive service jobs,” which include care and sales jobs, come with a pay penalty even when controlling for education levels, unionization rates, cognitive and physical skill, and the amount of women doing the job. Feminine work, as Ruchti calls it, is valued less.

It is a surprise to see Walmart workers striking at all; Moreton notes that the way the company played up its “values” made women hesitant to complain about their employer. Paula England, Nancy Folbre and Leana point out (also in For Love And Money) that workers who identify with their company’s mission earn less. This is even more obvious in the caring professions, where workers are directly responsible for the well-being and health or education of others — and where, more than in sales jobs, the work is identified with women’s “natural” skill and place.


“The notion that care work should be provided for love rather than money has often served to legitimate gender inequality,” argue England, Folbre, and Leana. Women are the ones expected to do the caring — raising children, helping elderly parents, and perhaps supporting both at the same time. Work norms have been shaped by this belief, pushing women into jobs that uphold gender stereotypes. Folbre’s research suggests that patriarchal institutions force women to “overspecialize in care provision,” and Ruchti found that conventional definitions of femininity tend to obscure the fact that care is work by defining it as an intrinsic characteristic of women.

“Good” nurses and other caregivers are the ones who do the work for altruistic motives. “Bad” caregivers are motivated by money. This romanticized view of care workers deflects attention from the low wages and long hours that caregivers work, and serves to justify those low wages.

The care industries are experiencing a surge in growth: Howes, Leana, and Smith write that home healthcare and services for the elderly and people with disabilities are now the industries with the fastest and second-fastest rates of growth of employment in the US. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ 2010 Population Survey, work in the paid care sector was 24 percent of all employment.

Yet increased demand hasn’t driven up wages. Instead, real wages fell for home care workers between 1999 and 2007, and despite the Obama administration’s push for new rules that would guarantee home care workers minimum wage and overtime pay, as of this writing, those rules have not been finalized. Meanwhile, K-12 teachers, who remain mostly women and are expected, as Goldstein notes, to be naturally caring, have borne the brunt of states’ austerity policies, facing layoffs, pay freezes, and anti-union attacks.

Nancy Harvey, who runs a daycare center in Oakland, California, told me in an interview that child care providers are also exempt from minimum wage requirements. The state agencies that pay for subsidized child care sometimes wind up as much as two months late with pay. She and other care providers keep the children regardless of whether they are paid. “Most of us don’t have any kind of health care, we don’t have retirement, we don’t have medical, dental, vision. With the subsidized program we are entitled to ten paid holidays a year. That means if you’ve been in the business for five years, if you’ve been in the business for forty-five years, you get ten days,” Harvey says. “We don’t have a voice at the table. We have people making decisions that have no concept of what it’s like to walk in our shoes.”

Child care and adult care providers are written off as “babysitters” and “companions” who don’t need wage protections; a report from the National Domestic Workers Alliance last year detailed rampant abuses of live-in nannies and domestic workers, yet California governor Jerry Brown vetoed a Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights. These workers are on the low end of the spectrum when it comes to pay and respect, even among other care workers. K-12 teachers and nurses are professionals who make professional salaries, need specialized education, and often have union contracts. Child care and adult care providers, by contrast, have more in common with the rest of the low-wage workforce. They often work part-time and not year-round, have fewer protections, and are more likely to be immigrants and people of color.

Ruchti notes that researchers have found discrimination within nursing and care work against women of color, who are seen as less professional and even more “naturally” caring than their white coworkers. This adds to the lack of respect for the less professionalized end of the field — or, as Ruchti says, “[W]hen care work is legitimized through professionalization it is not as accessible to women of color.”

Harvey stresses that she is not just a babysitter; she spends her own money on educational materials and toys for children between the ages of three months and three years. “We’re early childhood educators, and not babysitters,” she says. No one would question, she points out, whether a doctor deserves vacation time or a sick day. “I think it is how people view the profession. Physicians are valued.”

While bosses, administrators, and politicians expect and tout the natural “caring” that women who work in care fields provide, Harvey points out that it adds to their exploitation. “Kindness is taken for weakness,” she says.


The strike is labor’s weapon of last resort: the ultimate refusal of work, the shutdown of production. But what does it mean to strike when “production” isn’t the production of widgets, cars, or even food, but care for children, the ill or disabled, or the elderly?

The strikes in the last year by workers at Walmart and fast-food establishments weren’t intended to shut down operations; they were intended to shake up the bosses, establish solidarity, and build power among the workers. Similarly, not all care workers can shut down operations — a hospital goes on when its nurses strike, and replacement workers are called in. Child care and home care workers prepare their clients as best they can and help them make other arrangements. The Brooklyn Rail reported that when home health aides organized with SEIU 1199 struck in 2004, one woman’s client asked her for a stack of union cards to give out to substitute workers.

Longtime organizer Stephen Lerner and law student striker Emilie Joly, in separate interviews, both stressed the value of the strike as a freedom from work, creating time for busy workers to organize, rally, and speak to the press. It’s not just about shutting down production, in other words, but about laying claim to one’s own time.

In 1974, Mariarosa Dalla Costa argued that no strike had ever been a general strike because women’s work in the home was still being done. For a real general strike to be possible, women would have to be able to walk away from unwaged work, she argued. Yet we still have trouble walking away from waged “women’s work.” The women of the Wages for Housework movement argued that women had to be able to refuse the work that was considered a part of their essential femininity to show, as Wendy Edmond and Suzie Fleming said, that “we are not that work.” What more concrete refusal of work is there than a strike?

Striking at a factory or Walmart is one thing — it’s very clear who the target is. Striking, when you’re a care aide or a daycare provider or teacher, is a different process. The boss is not necessarily there every day when you go to work. The care recipients, patients, and students are not antagonists. They usually do not set wages for the workers, though they are the ones most immediately affected by a strike.

Yet it is necessary, sometimes, for care workers to strike, because without a demonstration of power from workers, conditions rarely change. Without a demonstration of what happens when women stop working, women’s work will never be properly valued.


Jen Johnson is a high school teacher in Chicago, an area vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union. Their union began laying the groundwork for its historic strike months in advance, she told me in a recent interview, with an initial focus on putting education issues on the community’s radar.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel put the teachers on notice shortly after his election. “He made it very clear that the teachers’ union was public enemy number one,” Johnson said. While Emanuel pushed to make the strike about wages, and even normally progressive pundits wrung their hands and lamented for the children, the union had already put forth its message. Teachers wanted better schools, air conditioned classrooms, and smaller class sizes — not Cadillac benefits and 1% wages.

The same rhetoric was thrown at home care workers who struck in New York in 2004, and nurses who strike are frequently shamed for abandoning their patients. “It’s unfortunate and disappointing that the union called this disruptive strike, especially during the holidays, when only the sickest of the sick are in the hospital,” a spokesperson for the Sutter hospital chain in California said — as the chain turned around and locked the nurses out for five days.

The education reform movement calls for merit pay for “good” teachers and swift firing for “bad” ones, encouraging individual self-interest among teachers. Yet when they dare to strike, that same ideology is used against them. We get the ironic spectacle of capitalists shaming unionized women workers for being insufficiently communitarian. The people doing “women’s work” are simultaneously not important enough and far too important to strike.

“Traditional femininity, and, by extension, nursing, are defined as pleasing others,” Ruchti points out. “Care — whether an act or idea — is about pleasing others.” In the rest of the capitalist workforce, workers are encouraged to be selfish, to push for their own advancement. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg has written a whole book telling women to demand more as individuals. But when care workers take collective action to demand better working conditions, they are shamed as selfish. “You should be taking care of the community!” pundits and politicians scold. “How dare you want better for yourself?”

England, Folbre, and Leana note that emotional attachments to students, patients, or charges often discourage workers from demanding higher wages or better conditions for themselves if they think they will hurt others — while owners and managers, who do not come into contact with care recipients as often, cut costs and squeeze ever more productivity out of workers. New York State Nurses Association vice president Judy Sheridan-Gonzalez commented in an interview that the lack of preparation for Hurricane Sandy was related to the broader neoliberal reorganization of work in the hospital. “They don’t want to pay people for what they call NPT — non-productive time,” she said, which means that training programs are out the window, and patients suffer. Meanwhile, nurses, who often include lower nurse-to-patient ratios in their bargaining, are called selfish.

Molly Knefel, writing about the New York school bus drivers’ strike, notes that pundits and bosses who claim to care often do just the opposite: “How we treat those who care for certain children reflects how we value those children.”

And Harvey asks: “We say we value education, but do we really? Do we value the people that give us the education, the teachers, the providers? When we look at it on paper, no, we don’t.”


In Chicago, the teachers beat Emanuel (and the pundits’ pearl-clutching) by out-planning him.

“The community had a better sense than normal that we weren’t just striking over a pay raise, we were striking because we wanted to call attention to serious inequality in our schools. It struck a chord with people,” Johnson says.

The union had added an organizing department shortly after its takeover by CORE, a more militant caucus discussed previously in these pages. They expected members to stay informed, to be media-trained, and to give feedback on their contract. They created a research department, which came up with a report titled “The Schools Chicago Students Deserve,” calling for smaller classes, increasing wraparound services, and better response to social and educational needs. They formed a bargaining team of more than thirty members to go to negotiation sessions, so that classroom teachers were there at the table as experts.

Johnson notes that when teachers framed themselves as educational experts in their communities, it made it harder for Emanuel to claim they didn’t care. They made care a visible part of their labor, and it showed — 67 percent of CPS parents supported the teachers’ strike. Johnson points out that very few children were sent across picket lines to the in-school programs put together by the city while the teachers were out.

Weeks warns of the dangers of sanctifying “women’s work” and the assumptions about women’s natural place and biological tendencies that comes with it, but what the Chicago teachers did, what nurses and home care aides do, is make their work visible. By stepping away from it, even briefly, they dissociate themselves from it and remind us that it is not work done simply out of love. By including demands that benefit the community, they make visible the value of their caring as well as their expertise.

Of course, all of this is extra work that comes on top of the grueling work that teachers, nurses, and child care and home care workers are already doing. Which brings us back to the beginning, more or less: to the need for a rekindled movement for shorter hours, a movement that will challenge our fixed ideas about what is work and who should do it, about the organization of domestic, reproductive, and care work.

In Weeks’ words, “The demand would be for more time not only to inhabit the spaces where we now find a life outside of waged work but also to create spaces in which to constitute new subjectivities, new work and nonwork ethics, and new practices of care and sociality.”


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