There are more women in work than ever before, and more women in unions. A new generation of women activists is changing the labour movement.


Women have been at the forefront of some of the most significant union battles in recent years

The complaint the unions are “pale, male and stale” is an old one, and it’s still relevant: the union movement is dominated by a small cohort of mature white men from traditional industries as it slowly declines.

While we need to defend traditional industries, clearly the route to renewing our movement and building up industrial strength relies on opening our unions up to more diversity, to fully represent the modern world of work: more women, more people of colour, more migrant workers, more young people in precarious work.

The challenge for unions is how to recruit to recruit these members: why would dynamic young women activists join a union of men defending the last vestiges of a macho industrial culture?

New activists

Bangladeshi textile unions rally to commemorate the Tazreen fire disaster

Bangladeshi textile unions rally to commemorate the Tazreen fire disaster

Attacks on terms and conditions have lead women into unions, and into activism. Some of the most powerful union fights of recent years have happened not in heavy industry, but in sectors employing lots of women: education, health, textiles, retail and cleaning. A whole new generation of women activists have entered the labour movement.Whether they’re teachers in Chicago or garment workers in Bangladesh, women are taking on the bosses and learning valuable organising lessons.

Women bring new ideas into the movement. At the risk of being gender-essentialist and claiming that women organise differently to men, union campaigns that have had a high level of participation from women have tended to add new, creative ideas to the campaigning toolkit: activists have used song, theatre and humour to get their message across, in addition to the traditionally masculine, confrontational model of picketing and shouting through a bullhorn.

Young women activists in the catering industry using song to get their message across 

Women as leaders

There are now a number of powerful women trade union leaders: Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the ITUC, represents 180 million workers around the world, is the arguably most powerful trade unionist in the world, and the individual with the biggest democratic mandate.

In the UK, the TUC elected Frances O’Grady as general secretary in 2013, the first women to hold this post. At the international level, the global public sector union PSI is lead by Rosa Pavenelli, while Adriana Rosenzvaig is the Latin American regional secretary of UNI Global Union.

In an article entitled The female bosses destroying the image of ‘union thugs’ forever, Van Badham profiles 13 powerful Australian women leaders.

Feminisation as union strategy

Unia members demonstrate

Unia members demonstrate

The Swiss general union Unia was explicit in its intention to feminise the union when it was formed in 2004. As founding general secretary Vasco Pedrina explains,

“In 1996, the two main unions in Switzerland – the construction union and the metal workers union – decided to mutually launch a new union for the service sector, up until then a “union desert”. Their first goal: to win new members in the retail trades and in the hospitality industry.

In Switzerland, we had the challenge that one deals with four official languages as well as a further number of other languages of the larger immigrant groups. We wanted to use the same name for all languages. “Union” was a possibility, but this name was not unique as all unions are a “Union”…

Furthermore, we had a second wish: we particularly wanted to speak to and win over women for our new service-sector-union (as the degree of unionization of women was very weak in Switzerland). So finally, we came up with the idea of the name “Unia”. The reason being that in the Latin languages names ending with an “a” tend to be feminine.

With the name “Unia” we simultaneously managed to combine all of our aims:

  •  A unique and identical name for all of our “union-languages” (we often translate our flyers, articles, etc. in more than seven languages)
  • A short name, but neither an acronym (like in the past with for instance GBI – Gewerkschaft Bau & Industrie) nor an “artificial name” (like ver.di)
  • A “feminine” name to visibly place in the centre of our activities and win over women for the union.

During the great merger of five unions to form the biggest inter-professional union in Switzerland in 2004 (with four sectors: construction, craft trades, industry, services), we decided to adopt the name “Unia”.

Eleven years later, we can indeed say it was a wise decision, the different sections of the movement are content, Unia is the most well know union in our country, the share of women in our membership has grown year for year and our services branches are becoming the most important sector in our union.”

So should we give up on men?

So does this mean that we abandon male workers and the industries they work in? Not at all. Bosses use feminist arguments to undermine conditions and make work less secure, but canny trade unionists know we are are stronger fighting together. More women activists in our unions means a whole new front is being opened up against greedy corporations, and a new generation of women activists is infusing our unions with passion, creativity and strength.

We owe them all the support we can give – they might just save our movement.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License.
Author avatar

Walton Pantland

South African trade unionist living in Glasgow. Loves whisky, wine, running and the great outdoors. Walton did an MA in Industrial Relations at Ruskin, Oxford, and is interested in how trade unions use new technology to organise.

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