In Spain’s Basque Country, Workers Held a General Strike for Public Care

Jule Goikoetxea

On Thursday, trade unions and women’s movements across Spain’s Basque Country held an explicitly feminist general strike. Workers are striking for a public community care system — one that ensures care work is well-paid and properly supported.

A woman with a megaphone shouts slogans in favor of the collective right to care as part of the activities during the feminist strike on November 30, 2023 in San Sebastian, Spain. The Basque feminist movement called for a strike to highlight the importance of the collective right to care and gender equality. (Gari Garaialde / Getty Images)

Interview by
Ben Wray

Thursday saw a first-of-a-kind strike in the Basque Country — perhaps without precedent anywhere in Europe. This explicitly feminist general strike saw both women and men taking industrial action to demand “a public-community care system.” The strike is the initiative of the Basque feminist movement, but was coordinated with the full participation of the Basque unions, which represent around two-thirds of all unionized workers in the Basque Country.

Works’ councils that represent workers in 1,500 workplaces and businesses committed to join the strike, alongside 125 demonstrations across a population of less than three million. Strikers include the Mercedes car factory in Vitoria-Gasteiz, the metro in Bilbao, health workers in the public health service (Osakidetza), all of the cleaners at the three largest cleaning companies (Eulen, Garbialdi, ISS), and TV workers at the main Basque channel (EITB).

Jule Goikoetxea is one of the Basque Country’s leading feminist authors and activists. She spoke to Ben Wray about the historic strike and how it came about.

Ben Wray

Can you give us a brief history of how the Basque feminist movement has developed, and how it has come to the point of a feminist general strike?

Jule Goikoetxea

In the 1980s and 1990s, the feminist movement came out of the organic organizations of the Left, most importantly the organizations of the “Abertzale” (Basque sovereigntist) left. From there, in the new century, feminism began to organize itself at a national level in a totally autonomous way. It has gained strength as a movement that is not organically associated with any party or trade union or anything else.

In the last ten to fifteen years, the feminist movement has always sought to politicize all those issues that had been condemned to the private sphere, which are practically all the issues that affect women. What the movement did was to socialize and politicize issues such as sexist violence, the sexual division of labor, sexuality, and unpaid labor, which has been years of work and is the basis for the feminist general strike of 2023.

The fourth feminist wave arrived here around 2013 to 2015, just after the great financial crisis. The first boom of this fourth wave in Spain was when Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón, the former Popular Party (conservative) mayor of Madrid, proposed to reform the abortion law. There were enormous mobilizations around Spanish territory and also in the Basque Country.

From there, many feminist organizations emerged. At this moment there are around two hundred. If 2015 was the starting signal, the movement took off with the first international feminist strike on March 8 (International Women’s Day) 2018. That marked a turning point.

At the same time, it is important also to understand that the Basque Country has its own very important politicizing events. The movement here has expanded and developed a lot of force after Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (or ETA, the Basque independence movement) laid down arms [in 2011]. Suddenly, it was possible to talk about a lot of things and for other issues to take center-stage.

In 2014, the feminist movement began to organize large-scale nighttime demonstrations that were held before the annual festivals in the towns, normally in the summer. We covered our heads with a balaclava, like ETA did before, and we went out with fire, torches, drums, and chanting. The first motto was “fear is going to change sides.”

From then until the first feminist strike in 2018, the feminist movement intervened in the discourse surrounding the resolution of the armed conflict. We said a motto that is still used all the time in the Basque feminist movement, which is “this is not our peace.” Because when men kill each other it’s called war or political conflict, and when men agree to stop killing each other it’s called peace, but women are continually killed by men, and we do not call that a political conflict or a war.

So, after the first strike in 2018, there was a second one on March 8, 2019. All the organizing required for these strikes has impacted the nature of Basque feminism, and gradually the movement was reorganized, leaving behind the forms of militancy and organizational modes of the twentieth century. In 2019 there was the National Congress of Feminists of Euskal Herria, where three thousand women gathered, and we can say this is the beginning of the Basque feminism of the twenty-first century.

Then we had the pandemic. That put all the work that women do center stage. Because everything that the capitalists think is necessary to create surplus value was shut down, while there are also those jobs that cannot be stopped because human survival depends on them. People begin to realize that all those essential jobs are done by women, and they are related to what has been called “care” — all those tasks that are done for the reproduction of life. This is work done by women, and so is done in subaltern conditions, paying very little or nothing.

So in 2020, amid the pandemic, a process began throughout the feminist movement to address the issue of care, to put it on the front line and therefore to go on strike to address it. We can say that those three years from 2020 to 2023 the movement was learning and teaching about the issue of care. That’s how we got here.

Ben Wray

The Basque Country has the highest strike rate in Europe, including long strikes and big victories in recent years in female-dominated sectors like residential care and cleaning. While the number of strikes by men in the Basque Country fell in 2022 by 80,186 days, the number of strikes by women increased by 12,088. Women now make up the majority (56 percent) of the participants in strikes by gender. Is this also part of the background to this feminist general strike?

Jule Goikoetxea

Totally, because when you go from an industrial capitalism to a service capitalism, where more women are entering the labor market, what happens? You have a general feminization of poverty. In the third sector, which now is almost completely women, we are seeing new jobs but also the degradation of old jobs previously done by men. We’re clearly seeing a privatization process that affects working-class women the most.

Together with this fourth wave of feminism, we begin to see the creation of a feminist trade unionism. Not only here — also in Andalusia and other places. What does this mean? That the speech and priorities of unionism begin to accommodate and establish a trade unionism that is not so masculine.

First, in residential care work or domestic work, patriarchy intersects with the issue of immigration law. Migrant workers are entering into all the traditionally unpaid work that has become a job and has been made feminized and precarious, and that the unions have not traditionally given room for. In response, an autonomous feminist unionism develops, which means that there are certain domestic workers, as well as sex workers and others, who create their own unionism based on their own associations.

Secondly, the more classic unions have begun to accommodate part of the feminized working class, such as the residential care sector, and their trade unionism has begun to change and become feminist. We have seen very long strikes in the feminized sector, not only in residential care but also, for example, in the retail chain H&M.

Fifty-six per-cent of strikes in the Spanish state are in the Basque Country. So, here is a driving force in the development of this feminist trade unionism, because the longest strikes in recent years have been carried out by women in feminized sectors.

That’s why I always say that the real feminism of this country is anti-capitalist because it is completely enmeshed with all the worker and union struggles that have been taking place here, especially in the last two decades.

Ben Wray

Can we talk about Basque feminism having a working-class and anti-capitalist character?

Jule Goikoetxea

It is absolutely an anti-capitalist feminism. If you take our movement’s discourse since 2018, it’s about how neoliberal patriarchy works to create feminine subjects who work for free and who believe they do it for love; a critique of the family; and above all a critique of the concept of work and the concept of the strike.

How work has been related to the creation of surplus value, which has been called productive work, and how all the work that women do as women is called reproductive, because according to certain economic theories they do not produce value: we critique everything from economic theory, theories of value, theories of reproduction, and so forth.

Also, we advocate ecofeminism, which means we consider how the land is organized here, how the land is distributed, and what relationship there is between the right to decide about our own body and the right to decide about our own land. Basque autonomous feminism is also mostly proindependence.

Ben Wray

A feminist general strike is not an easy thing to organize. I understand that a lot of the organization has been based on neighborhood feminist assemblies, with the first assemblies for the strike taking place all the way back in April 2022. Can you explain how this strike has been organized?

Jule Goikoetxea

The strike began, as I said, in 2020 with the organizations of the autonomous feminist movement focusing on the question of care.

Then, we began to work with the unions on the concept of the strike. In January 2020, a general strike in the Basque Country took place based around a “Social Charter.” This was the first general strike where care was a key focus. The feminist movement actively participated.

This year’s strike is different from the previous feminist strikes on International Women’s Day 2018 and 2019, which were not “general.” This time, everyone is called on to join the strike, from metal workers to plumbers, from domestic workers to sex workers. So it’s been very important that the unions took part in the second phase of its preparation.

In the so-called intersindical, the feminist movement makes decisions together with the unions. This process is also opened up to local neighborhoods. So, the strike has been organized at both levels, at the salaried level and at the nonsalaried level, where we live and work, and also where the unemployed are.

So you have organizing neighborhood-by-neighborhood, some are mixed spaces (women and men) and others nonmixed. And also you have assemblies together with the unions, which are usually nonmixed spaces. And it’s in nonmixed spaces where the important decisions are made.

This is a very decentralized way of organizing. The neighborhood assemblies, where the feminist movement has traditionally been organized, have been revived around this issue.

That’s important, because this is a general strike in an economy where 75 percent is services, most of which take place in communities. We must organize all those people who are struggling for money for housing, for electricity, etc. We have to organize where life happens, where everyone lives.

This is one of the biggest achievements of the November 30 strike — the process of building it has been beautiful and novel.

Ben Wray

The main demand is a public-community care system. Why is care the focus, and what would such a system look like?

Jule Goikoetxea

Neoliberal capitalism wants to commodify care and specifically old-age care, because our societies are increasingly older and therefore capital can make a lot of money.

In the Basque Country they are privatizing everything: residential care, health care, education. This directly affects women because when you privatize any aspect of health or education, the unpaid workload of women increases. Who takes care of people when they are kicked out of the hospital because there are no more beds? Women. Where do the children go when the school cafeterias are privatized — and who cooks for them? Women at home.

Through this privatization process, they are impoverishing women and imposing back on women what had been in the hands of the state. This is one of feminism’s twentieth-century achievements: that education and health care became public services. But the twenty-first century has begun and they’ve begun to privatize all that.

We demand public and community care. First, “public care” refers to opposing all neoliberal privatization. Here we are saying we want feminist public structures, not colonial, patriarchal ones, but ones that ensure care throughout life as a right and as an obligation of the public sector. In Mexico, they already include the issue of care as a public right.

Secondly, “community care” refers to everything that women do to produce society: not only through precarious work, not only that which the state should take responsibility for, but also everything that women do in the family or the community. This refers to what men have to start taking care of, because the statistics are always the same: that men don’t do unpaid work and 85 percent of unpaid work worldwide is done by women.

That’s where the “community” aspect of the demand comes in. It’s not simply that the state has to put in place institutions that ensure care from birth until death, but also that wiping your daughter’s ass or wiping your grandmother’s ass has to be done by men as well.

Ben Wray

The Rubiales scandal, where soccer chief Luis Rubiales kissed World Cup–winning player Jenni Hermoso without her consent, made headlines worldwide for weeks. What effect do you think this had on Spanish society?

Jule Goikoetxea

It’s not about what Rubiales’s impact has been — it’s what effect the fourth feminist wave has had when the Rubiales case arose. How the feminist movement has become so connected to the Spanish national football team — that’s the story.

What happened with the Rubiales scandal hasn’t happened before. In the last twelve thousand years — that is, since patriarchy has existed — it’s not happened that half of society gets angry that this guy can continue to be the boss after giving an unwanted kiss to a woman.

This is why it’s so important, because the fourth feminist wave has influenced everything in this situation. From the most mainstream, prime time TV program calling Rubiales a “machista” [sexist, male chauvinist] to my local shopkeeper, who was outraged. This sort of boom in mainstream media and culture has never happened before.

It’s important to remember that before the Rubiales scandal, the football team were already angry — they were already organizing, they were already doing unionism from a feminist perspective. Remember that when the fifteen players had earlier refused to go to the World Cup, the media made fun of them. So, the Rubiales kiss was the thing that led their indignation to erupt.

The fourth feminist wave has been happening worldwide for ten years now. It reaches everywhere, because women are angry almost all the time. In some places we have a voice and power, and when it explodes like it did with Jenni Hermoso and the Spanish football team, it’s super beautiful.

Ben Wray

The new left-wing Spanish government has just been established, and one talking point is the removal of Podemos’s Irene Montero, who was equality minister and is a leading figure in the Spanish feminist movement. This removal was clearly a move made by Yolanda Díaz, the leader of the Sumar electoral coalition. Also, Carmen Calvo, a leading figure in the center-left Socialist Party (PSOE), said she couldn’t be happier about Montero’s removal because now there will be a “feminism of equality” again, with a PSOE minister in charge. At the November 25 demonstrations against gender violence in Madrid, there were two marches, one with PSOE and the other that Podemos and Sumar joined. How do you see this political battle over feminism on the Spanish left?

Jule Goikoetxea

The Spanish left at an organizational level is a disaster. Those further left than the PSOE have a problem, because Sumar from the beginning is a political project that is about creating a moderate left similar to PSOE that can steal votes from PSOE and enlarge that left-wing base.

From the first moment, Sumar is a project to destroy the entire feminist framework that Irene Montero represented, and to moderate and get closer to the speech of PSOE. That is why Montero is out, and why Yolanda Díaz is the one who leads the new formation. Díaz comes from the Spanish Communist Party; she is a traditional woman from the traditional left.

We can say, from Sumar to PSOE, that this is a liberal feminism. It is not an anti-feminism, like the far right’s. But it tries to attach itself to emancipatory movements in order to reduce their radicalism, to integrate them into the system. It’s a feminism that says “men and women have to have the same human rights”; it is very old, very moderate.

The fourth feminist wave has been very powerful, and Montero’s achievements as equality minister are a reflection of this. The laws that she passed have been the most progressive in Europe.

The feminist movement in the Spanish state, with all its complexities and with many arguments that do not exist within the Basque feminist movement, remains quite a radical movement, and it has greatly influenced the institutions and a party like Podemos. And I think we can understand Montero’s removal from the government as part of an attempt to put the brakes on this movement.

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Jule Goikoetxea is a leading Basque feminist author and activist. She is professor of political theory at the University of the Basque Country.

Ben Wray is the author, with Neil Davidson and James Foley, of Scotland After Britain: The Two Souls of Scottish Independence (Verso Books, 2022).

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