The “Shock Absorbers” of Neoliberalism: Women and Public-Sector Retrenchment in the Americas

Sunday, January 6, 2019: 11:40 AM
Salon 2 (Palmer House Hilton)
Jane Berger, Moravian College
As nations around the globe began adopting neoliberal economic strategies during the late twentieth century, feminist critics protested the impacts of new policies on the world’s poorest residents, who were often women. Cuts in government spending on public welfare provisions took the tremendous toll on women who could least afford replacement services. A second, less-noticed group of women also often paid a steep price for the implementation of neoliberal policies: those who worked in the public sector. According to researchers from the International Labor Organization, by the mid-1970s, and in nearly all regions of the world, governments had become important employers of women. Female public-sector workers—from sweepers to teachers, from secretaries to social workers—were often unionized or in influential employee organizations, and their government jobs frequently provided them with economic advantages. They were thus often some distance removed from the poorest recipients of government services, and, at least in some cases, suspiciously viewed as agents of social control. Retrenchment, a neoliberal policy prescription, proved a grave threat to government workers and their labor organizations, and women were particularly vulnerable due to their concentration in public-welfare agencies, the frequent targets for cuts. This paper compares the experiences of female public-services providers in the Americas during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. It argues that they and their unions were often among those on the front lines in battles protesting neoliberal policies and explores the extent to which the workers defended not only their own jobs but also the imperative that the government continue to provide vital public services. It argues as well that although economists counted as economic activity the labor of public-service providers, they failed to account for the unpaid labor of poor women who attempted to replace services recently available from the state with their own efforts.
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