“Mothers’ Strike” is a documentary that portrays the living conditions of the striking women in Walbrzych, Poland in 2010, their struggle against local authorities, conflicts with welfare institutions and their attempts at self-organizing.
The following text was written in summer 2011 by some of those behind the documentary:
Walbrzych is a city in southwest Poland, with 122.000 inhabitants. The city was an industrial center since the late 19th century (e.g. textile, coal mining, glass industry). After the capitalist transformation at the beginning of the 1990s, a decision was made to close down the coal mines. That, together with mass redundancies in plants that survived the first years of a market economy, resulted in rapid unemployment and mass emigration.
Since 1994, the Polish government has established 14 SEZ (Special Economic Zones) looking for a solution to the negative effects of the transformation. One of the largest SEZ called “Invest Park” was founded in Walbrzych in 1997 and will operate until 2020.
Despite the long-term existence of Invest Park, in 2010 the unemployment in the area reached 20 percent. Lack of income caused a lack of existential security for many households. Today the majority of jobs offers come from the SEZ. There are over 100 businesses in Invest Park, among others: Toyota, General Electric, Bridgestone, Electrolux, IBM, Wabco, Colgate-Palmolive, Cadbury. Investors are entitled to get public aid, lower taxes and other incentives.
Labour costs in the region are lower than in other regions of Poland. The companies are completely adapted to the requirements of the post-fordist system of production: work is not only low-paid, but also temporary, part-time and often based on special civil law contracts. Production is fully adapted to market requirements and working hours are flexible. When production speeds up, workers work even 18 hours a day for a few days or weeks; when it slows down, they get no new contracts and no income.
This temporary and low-paid employment system contributes to the increasing housing problems in the city. Even people with jobs are in danger of becoming homeless.. A few years ago the homeless who did not want to wait in very long queues and in vain for social housing, started to occupy hundreds of derelict, abandoned apartments. That became especially popular among single mothers, as renting a flat is beyond their financial capabilities.
When workers solved their housing problem by occupying empty flats, their position on the labor market changed: in the film women describe how they are able to ignore the most unfavorable job-offers. Suddenly they realize that unemployment doesn’t necessary mean homelessness.
After several years, this form of self-organization became a problem for the local authorities. They cut off the water-, power- and gas-supply in the squatted flats. The women were called criminals, the authorities took legal actions against them and won in the courts. In 2008 a group of women went on hunger strike demanding the provision of electricity, water and gas to their flats. They also demanded a change in local policy and called for building social housing or an increasing number of social flats through the renovation of destroyed, abandoned buildings. After several days of strike, several hundred Walbrzych people supported by a grassroots trade union staged a solidarity demonstration in front of the town hall. Women admit in the film that this moment was important as they felt intimidated and humiliated. As a result, the authorities agreed to provide electricity, water and gas to the occupied flats, but only temporarily. They demanded a stop of the hunger strike and individual meetings with each woman instead of an open discussion with the whole group; that way they tried to break the women’s collective bargaining power, distract the media attention and eliminate organizations which supported them.
The mothers’ rebellion has its price: repression. The women describe in the film the frequent raids by the police and people from the public administration, searches of their flats in the middle of the night, and how the authorities tries to deprive them of their parental rights over their children.
After the strike the authorities tried to force women to leave the occupied flats by introducing high rents. However, some of them found this sanction outrageous, as they had repaired the derelict houses for years without any financial help. In response to the repression the women refused to pay any rent and stayed in their flats. The only proposal they received from the municipality was about them moving out to a shelter for the homeless, where they would be under constant surveillance and subjected to harsh discipline. They did not want to accept the repressive regime of these institutions and kept fighting for a right to a place to live.
Many unemployed women in Walbrzych do not accept the violation of workers’ rights and sub-standard working hours. Above all, they do not accept incomes on starvation level, working on fixed-term contracts and the unstable character of the jobs. As a result, they stayed unemployed, they refused to work. It had also to do with the lack of adequate infrastructure such as nurseries and day care for children, that would enable them to get a job on flexible terms. Flexible term means here spending a dozen or so hours per day in the factory what does not correspond to the opening hours of nursery schools. Another obstacle is the three shift mode of production: if mothers work on afternoon- or night-shift they aren’t able to send their children to the kindergarten because those are closed, while their wages don’t allow them to employ a babysitter. The women who decide to keep working in the factories are often too exhausted to take care of their children. Last year a small child fell down from the window of a tenement house: the mother taking care of him at that time had fallen asleep after a long shift in the factory.
The job agencies are trying to push women to accept low paid jobs by forcing them to attend job trainings or do unwaged work. Stable employment is more then ever just available to a privileged group of people. The authorities, however, find ways to force the unemployed to accept “junk” contracts or to even do different kind of “useful” activities for free or almost for free, like pulling out the roots of trees in parks. A common practice is delegating the unemployed to internships that are paid below the existence level. However, the women who reject the job agencies’ offers lose their allowance and put themselves at risk of harassment by Family Assistance Centers. The state welfare institutions in fact assume that refusal of work is pathological, so they threaten mothers of taking their children to an orphanage if they do not submit to the discipline of work. They do not care about the exhaustion of women working in the rhythm of 12/24 (12 hours of work in 24 hours). The mothers are expected to do the reproductive work at home and then carry out the role of unwaged or nearly unwaged labor. If women are unable to do so, they lose their job, welfare and sometimes their children.
However, the film shows that there is resistance, and we think that the analysis of their resistance has to go beyond the conflict with the local authorities and housing problem: it also opens up a discussion about undervalued reproductive work of women and the exclusion of this type of work from the formal economy. The women resist against the rhetoric used by the authorities, defining them as useless objects who demand support from the state without giving anything in return. What is more, they collectively find a solution to the housing problems, and openly reject the social policy that ignores their reproductive work and forces them to do wage labor in the SEZ. Their story shows that welfare cuts, as well as technological changes and recent changes of the Polish labor law implemented under the pretext of the crisis, lead not only to an intensification of waged work but also unwaged reproductive work. However, the mothers, deprived of a basic social income, resist to do waged work at a time when they devote all their time to reproductive work. They resist against the double burden of work at home and in the factory.
The film “Mothers’ Strike” reveals the political nature of the care shortage, which worsened after the implementation of neo-liberal reforms in Poland. Moreover, the collective self-organization that we see as a response to the crisis of reproductive work shows that this is not just an individual matter. This crisis is a result of systemic oppression, against which whole communities start to fight. Thus, when the proletarian households suffer from the social cuts and the the state withdraws from its responsibility for care work, that is not a private problem of individual families.
The mothers from Walbrzych do not want to subordinate to capitalist society organized in accordance with free market principles. They respond to the ignorance towards their needs by the local authorities through the self-organization of the space they need. Moreover, they stop to be dependent on the goodwill of the welfare state (if the Polish state could ever be called welfare state…) and they reduce the cost of living through occupying empty flats. It allows them to reject the disciplinary practices of the employers and the junk contracts. In other words, the women we see in the film occupying abandoned flats, refusing to pay rents, and resisting to the practices of employers, deny to play the role of wage laborers exploited by capital.