Working class women need abortion rights, paid family leave, & child care
by Claire Bayler
March 8th, 2023 marks the first International Women’s Day (IWD) since the overturn of Roe vs. Wade. Capitalism is on the offensive against working women, denying us the right to choose if, when, and how to have families and denying us the means to raise those families.
The U.S. has no federally protected abortion rights, no universal health care or child care, no comprehensive and scientifically-informed reproductive care or education, and the highest maternal mortality rate in the developed world. Working women lack guaranteed paid maternal leave long enough to heal and bond with their baby, and partners, especially fathers, often lack paid leave or the means to take unpaid time off to help.
The Right to Choose
Nearly half of pregnancies every year, nationally and internationally, are unintended. In the US in 2022, 28.5% of women with a recent live birth did not want to become pregnant or wanted to become pregnant later. Unintended pregnancies are even higher among Black women, low income women, those without a high school education, and those who are unmarried.
Half of abortions in the US are obtained through an FDA-approved medication, mifepristone, now under attack by a single federal judge. Workers are already furious that nine unelected judges on the Supreme Court have the power to rule against the views of 60% of people in the US who support abortion access. Undemocratically appointed judges are taking away women’s legal rights without any real political oversight or check on their power.
The capitalist class and its politicians in both corporate political parties are not in total agreement on how to restrict reproductive rights. Yet those who seek to undermine access to abortion and birth control can count on a minimal and legalistic response from those claiming they are in favor of reproductive rights. Both corporate parties act on behalf of capitalism as it tries to maintain systematic control over women, forcing them to provide uncompensated labor to maintain families-tasks that should instead be socialized—and ensure the existence of the next generation of workers.
Forced pregnancy and birth only heighten the danger to women in a sexist and for-profit healthcare system. Women’s medical needs are largely ignored by research and healthcare providers, misdiagnosed, or left untreated.
The for-profit healthcare system excludes over 10 million uninsured women (11%) in 2021. Another 18% relied on publicly funded insurance like Medicaid, up 2% from 2020 and 3% from 2016. Emergency pandemic measures rapidly increased the number of Medicaid patients, but Biden is revoking them on May 11, which will cause an estimated 5-14 million people to lose coverage.
Pregnant people rely on public health insurance programs for pregnancy-related care for 68% of unplanned births, double that of planned births. Those who do qualify for Medicaid during pregnancy may not have coverage for the entirety of the pregnancy. Many lose coverage 60 days after delivery if they are above the threshold to qualify under parent/adult provisions. The Hyde Amendment prevents federal spending, including Medicare, on abortion care outside of rape, incest, or threat to life.
Child Care Crisis
Once children are born, working families have the often impossible task of finding someone to take care of their kids while they work. The child care crisis has reached such intensity that the U.S. Treasury Department released a study acknowledging the child care system is basically in a state of “market failure”, with significant consequences for the overall economy.
Mothers and families face a dilemma: they must be able to afford and secure child care in order to work, but many jobs don’t pay enough to cover child care—and yet families can’t afford to live without mothers working. This vicious cycle keeps parents and families in poverty and vulnerable, in addition to saving the bosses the cost of employer-funded or tax-funded child care.
Tanya W., a member of the Independent Socialist Group (ISG) who is a new mother describes,
“When I had a kid I was aware that child care was expensive, but I had no idea how much so. I also had no idea just how little available child care there is. We’re on maybe 20 daycare waitlists and have been for almost a year and still don’t have a spot, so we rely on my mom and hourly babysitters (which is about twice as expensive as daycare).”
Nationwide families pay between 8% and 19.3% of median family income per child for paid care. Nearly 30% of US families with preschool children have two or more in that age group, doubling or tripling the price. The pandemic heightened severe pre-existing problems in child care- unaffordable services on the one hand, understaffing on the other.
Conditions for child care workers, poverty-level pay, and a near complete lack of benefits has caused the industry, battered by the pandemic shut downs, to lose 8.4% of its pre-pandemic workforce and tens of thousands of facilities. While most other sectors of the economy have recovered to pre-pandemic employment levels, child care was still 10% under as of June 2022.
Child care employed 949,000 workers in 2021 making a national average wage of $14.01/hr. Black and Hispanic women are paid even less, at $11.27 and $12.59 per hour, respectively. Nearly one third of child care workers were food insecure in 2021. The industry expects to need to fill 170,100 job openings each year over the next decade. Minnesota, Montana, and Iowa tried to address the staffing crisis by changing regulations to increase child-adult ratios or allow 16-year-olds to care for up to 15 children over the age of 5 without adult supervision. This is one of several moves by capitalists and their politicians to bring back child labor.
The for-profit private child care system is reliant on overburdened families and underpaid workers, resulting in substantial turnover and lack of supply. Where US public spending is $12,800 per elementary-aged child, it is only $2,800 for 3-4 year old children and a mere $500 for the first three years of life when the most intensive care is needed.
Tanya lays out the dilemma her family faces,
“Between the unavailability of child care, instability and unpredictability of care, and the expense, many women who would otherwise want to work are being pushed out of the labor force. For example, at my previous job, I made $60,000 per year and my take home pay (after taxes and insurance premiums) was $3,500 per month, but child care was $1,500 per month. Note that I only pay for a babysitter for 20 hours per week and my mom fills in the rest — that’s still 43% of my paycheck. AND I have super flexible work so I can deal with my child getting sick, or my babysitter falling through. But literally I have no idea how you could work if you had to pay a babysitter 40+ hours per week (because you couldn’t get a spot in daycare) and you didn’t have much sick time/PTO. It would be impossible. And there are so many people struggling to figure this out with even lower pay.”
Women make up about two-thirds of workers earning the federal minimum wage or just above, and nearly 70% of tipped workers, for whom the federal minimum wage is just $2.13/hr. Poverty rates for married-couple families and single mothers have both increased since 2019. 46.2% of single mothers with children under six (those for whom public schooling does not provide a portion of child care) live in poverty, and 38.1% of single mothers with school-aged children continue to live in poverty.
Teaching and nursing employ the largest number of working women and mothers. Registered nurses account for 1.28M employed mothers, with 54.3% of registered nurses being mothers. Elementary and middle school teachers, teaching assistants, preschool/kindergarten teachers, nursing assistants, and child care workers similarly employ over 50% mothers. The synchronized, flexible, or part-time schedules overwhelmingly attract women who need to somehow balance caring for their children with working.
“Even when working parents have child care, kids get sick all the time (and seemingly more so now, from Covid, flu, RSV, etc.), and there are half days and holidays, so it’s really hard to work a full-time job. The burden of balancing this (drop offs, pick ups, scheduling emergency and back-up child care) falls disproportionately on women.”
Only 4.8% of child care workers are unionized, in comparison to historically strong unionization among public school educators (70%). As of 2015, 41% of all public sector union members were women. Two of the three largest unions in the country represent public sector workers. The National Education Association (NEA) represents over 3 million public school employees and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) represents nearly 1.5 million government workers.
Educators and nurses have some of the highest rates of unionization in the entire economy. These unions are among the most active and militant at the moment. Numerous public educators unions across the country struck illegally in 2022-2023. Public sector workers lack the federally protected right to strike or even unionize (read more about teachers unions and strikes on page 4-5). This is an attack on all workers’ rights and livelihoods, but disproportionately impacts women workers’ ability to fight for better conditions and defend jobs.
At the same time, even unionized “caring” jobs are in crisis with rapidly deteriorating working conditions and lacking living wages. Public support (programs, funding, etc.) and regulations for schools, healthcare, disabled and elder care, and more are consistently targeted. Capitalism seeks to privatize and profit off of fundamental human needs that should not be rationed, withheld or destroyed by “market forces”.
We Need Public Universal Child Care
Capitalist politicians and media across the world bemoan falling birth rates because they fear a shortage of workers. The latest CDC studies (2021) show birth rates mildly increasing to 11.0 per 1,000 people in the US from the historic low in 2020. A poll of young adults asking why they aren’t having children showed “can’t afford child care” (31%) and housing unaffordability (24%) in the top five.
While financial concerns clearly influence people’s decisions to have kids, wealthier people actually have fewer kids than low income workers—precisely because they have the financial and medical means to make reproductive choices. The combination of abortion bans, inaccessible child care, and constant cuts to public services puts women in an extremely precarious and exploitable position. There is a serious discussion of universal child care among working families these days, even if there is not yet an organized mass movement fighting for it.
Under the pressure of mass protest movements in the 60’s-70’s, stronger unions, and rising global living standards, Congress passed the Comprehensive Child Care Act of 1971 to establish a universal child care system. President Nixon vetoed the bill and an override vote failed despite the Democrats controlling Congress. Once the pressure of the mass movements, including the women’s movement, declined, no serious campaign for public universal child care remained.
During the same period, the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union opened the first union-operated child care center in 1967. The union, representing mostly women workers, would grow to become the largest private provider of child-care in the country.
The program, while vital to meet working womens’ immediate needs, was aimed at advancing the demand for a national, public solution. The union child care centers ultimately closed or changed ownership as corporations went on the offensive against unions, but this example demonstrates that the labor movement can and should take up the issue of child and reproductive care.
Democrats Offer No Fundamental Change
Multiple rounds of Democratic majorities and presidents have refused to codify abortion rights, despite claiming to defend them. Biden attempted to whip up support for the Democrats during the 2022 midterms using abortion rights, despite opposing federal funding for abortion while he was in Congress. There has been no mention of or action on abortion rights since the midterm. Universal child care was cut from the Inflation Reduction Act—corporate handouts in disguise. Clinton gutted welfare and criminalized the poor, all while funneling more money into mass incarceration.
Welfare shifted from supporting single mothers at home to requiring them to find jobs. Politicians demonized poor Black women as “welfare queens”, racist rhetoric used to justify sweeping cuts in welfare spending throughout the 70’s and 80’s. Clinton’s 1996 “welfare reform” bill continued the same “culture of poverty” arguments, making stereotypes about poor women and women of color the foundation of the “reform”.
Welfare “reform” established stricter work requirements and a time limit for families in the program, which, when reached, forced workers even further into the labor market with little consideration of how they could ensure their children are properly cared for or whether paid employment will earn them an adequate wage. Programs were evaluated by how much they reduced the number of participants. They deterred applicants with complicated and demeaning procedures. Treating all applicants as potential criminals let welfare and law enforcement closely monitor and punish the parenting of poor, especially black mothers.
The Socialist Fight to End Oppression
Socialists have always fought for a communal approach to unpaid work in the home, which is mostly done by women under capitalism. When the capitalists no longer control the economy, there will be no benefit in generating or reinforcing sexist ideas used to exploit women for profit and as a source of private labor instead of socialized work. Everyone will be able to redefine themselves and their relationships – including sex and gender identity – without fear of economic or social repercussions.
The overturn of Roe and the recent increase in child labor are demonstrations that no rights and gains are permanently won under capitalism. We need to rebuild a mass women’s movement, based on the power of the working class and labor, capable of fighting for immediate demands linked to the idea of fundamental social change. That mass movement needs an independent workers’ party to help organize campaigns and actions, and to fight in the electoral arena. The capitalist class uses the Democratic Party as an effective tool to control working people’s desire for progressive change. If we want to win serious legal and material improvements for women, it’s crucial that mass movements, voters, activists, women’s organizations, and the labor movement break from the Democratic Party.
International Women’s Day (originally International Working Women’s Day) was founded by socialists as a day of struggle and protest, uniting workers of all genders around the world. The Russian women’s strike for “bread and peace” on IWD in 1917 kicked off the Russian Revolution which ultimately overthrew the brutal tsarist regime, then the capitalist Provisional Government, and established the first democratic workers’ state and planned economy in the world. Every year we remember the central role women play in the fight to end capitalist exploitation and oppression and in the fight for a socialist world.
The Independent Socialist Group calls for:
- Organize mass protests to defend our democratic rights. We demand codified abortion rights, trans and LGBTQ+ rights, and marriage equality.
- Defend unions under attack, including women-dominated industries like nurses, teachers, and service workers. For the labor movement to launch a mass union organizing drive among non-union and under-unionized industries.
- Raise the federal minimum wage to $25/hour, tied to the cost of living with no exemptions and no loss of benefits, as a step toward a living wage for all. Extend all full-time protections and rights to part-time workers. Remote work rights for all workers in applicable jobs.
- Guarantee a minimum income of $1000/week for the unemployed, disabled, elderly, students, stay-at-home parents, and others unable to work. Close pay loopholes for elderly, disabled, undocumented, and “temporary” workers!
- Full funding and staffing for public services including schools. Require scientifically informed, consent-based, and inclusive sex education. End the privatization of education. Defend public sector unions and the right to strike. Forgive all student debt.
- Federal paid family leave for all. Minimum 6 months maternal and paternal leave with no loss in pay or benefits and guaranteed jobs.
- A massive jobs program to:
- Build and run government funded, publicly owned, and democratically run universal child care across the country in urban and rural communities. Don’t deregulate to fill the staffing gap—publicly fund training programs leading to jobs with good pay and benefits and union rights.
- Implement high-quality public before- and after-school care for all as part of universal child care, including arts, academic, and sports programs.
- Publically-funded training programs for all educator and support specialties.
- Build and run urban and rural healthcare facilities to make care easy to access. Full staffing to guarantee accessible pre- and post-natal care, pediatric care, mental health and specialist services.
- Universal healthcare with comprehensive reproductive care including abortion and birth control.
- Massive investment in public health research to close gender, racial, and other bias gaps. All research and products to be publicly owned, not privately patented for profit.
- A Socialist Green New Deal to build the infrastructure and services necessary for people to live and raise families, including public housing, education, transit, healthcare, and to fight the climate crisis.
- For a mass working women’s movement, as part of the broader workers’ movement and an independent workers’ party, to take up the struggle to end oppression and build a democratic, socialist society.