It may seem an unlikely comparison, but the mainly male Eurostar rail workers on strike this August bank holiday, demanding work-life balance, stand in a long tradition of feminist activism. 95% of RMT union members voted to strike in protest against Eurostar’s failure to honour an agreement from 2008 to ensure that train managers could expect a good work-life balance in terms of unsocial hours on duty rosters. Late shifts and irregular hours are not only proven to increase stress levels and have long-term adverse effects on health, but also prevent workers from spending quality time with friends and family and taking an equal share in the housework and childcare.
Feminists and women trade unionists have been making similar arguments since the beginning of the 20thcentury. ‘Eight hours work, eight hours sleep and eight hours for what you will’ was a prominent slogan in a labour movement that fought not only for better wages and conditions but for a better quality of life full stop. The demand for a shorter working week and time to relax, read and dream was particularly important for women who would return home at the end of the working day only to face a second shift of arduous and unpaid housework.
Working women face similar problems today. In the UK we work longer working hours than any other country in Europe, and although most women now have jobs outside the home, they still do the majority of housework and childcare. If we want real equality between men and women, for men to take an active part in their children’s lives and pick up their own dirty socks, then we need a shorter working week for everybody. When the rail workers go on strike this month they will be striking a blow for feminism.