Women on the march in London, 30 November 2011. Photo by TUC International Women’s Day (8th March) this year coincides with the 30th anniversary of the Miners’ strike. On the 6th of March, the first wave of action took place on March 6th 1984. By the 1 …
International Women’s Day (8th March) this year coincides with the 30th anniversary of the Miners’ strike. On the 6th of March, the first wave of action took place on March 6th 1984. By the 12th of March that year, the NUM had moved to national action against pit closures. The co-incidence of these two dates gives us a unique opportunity to focus our attention on women’s role in the labour movement, and in women struggling for economic justice and equality.
Since the 1970s, trade union membership has been in decline. Over the last few years, recent waves of strikes and walk-outs have been combined with supportive and “solidarity action” from anti-austerity groups and political movements. Of course, much of the strike action was around the public sector pensions dispute, which disproportionately affected women. The majority of public sector workers are women, so the constant erosion of terms and conditions, pay cuts and job losses has a worryingly unbalanced effect on them, compared to men in the same roles. This splurge of militancy, particularly around November 30th 2011 was lauded by Frances O’ Grady of the TUC, stating that many of the workers participating in the industrial action had never been on strike before, and that many of the leaders of that action were young women. It was a glimpse of the new face of industrial action, and the participation in trade unions by women. However, this must of course be tempered with the reality that the private sector remains largely un-unionised.
Traditionally lower-paid occupations remain overwhelmingly dominated by women, according to the Office for National Statistics. 82% of workers in “caring, leisure and other services”, and 77% of administrative and secretarial workers are women. Three times more young women are employed in low-paid, low-skilled jobs than 20 years ago, according to a new study. A recent Guardian article quoted the TUC, stating that the proportion of 16 to 24-year-old women in jobs such as office and hotel cleaning has increased from 7% to 21%. There are a growing number of low-paid, precarious and un-unionised jobs that are increasingly being filled by women. Women in the private sector too, on average earn 15% less than the men who are their colleagues.
Overall, women make up the majority of those in low paid work: around 60% of workers earning £7 per hour or less are women. When the Coalition government tell us that unemployment is falling, they fail to reveal that the combination of a harsh benefit regime and astronomical childcare costs mean that women are pushed into part time work, and now, more women work part-time- in typically low paid jobs, with fewer prospects for promotion and access to training.
Employment that is seen as traditionally a “women’s” industry like, cleaning, catering and caring, are undervalued both societally and economically. It is by challenging the societal undervaluation of the work women do and the economic undervaluation of their labour that will rejuvenate the trade union movement at its grass roots, and also build women as industrial and political leaders- this is something very much lacking in our political institutions . The move towards an organising model of trade unionism, and its relationship to political trade unionism, is the best vehicle for doing these tasks.
There is a core of trade unions who wish to move away from their image as “Pale, Male and Stale”, and become more representative of workers in their sector. The appointment of the first woman as TUC General Secretary is obviously a step forward. But it is not just the “top position” being filled by a woman that will change things. It is the strategy of organising which will, as stated above, challenge the societal undervaluation of the work women do and the economic undervaluation of their labour. It is a twofold problem. With reference to the latter- by having strong trade union density and membership, then workers can make a challenge to poor wages, working conditions and gain access to training and so on. Servicing trade unionism can do this. However, it is only through empowerment at the grassroots that the societal undervaluation of women, which alienates them, can be defied. It is the “an organising strategy” adopted by certain trade unions which has the ability to do that. And through its organising agenda, unions like Unite are leading the grassroots fight back, for workers.
The service sector trade unionism, favoured by right-wing unions, stands in stark contrast to the organising and leverage agenda put forward by a new breed of unions, deemed by their lay members “fight-back unions”. It would be right to say, that these unions aren’t simply “organising unions”. These unions do not simply seek to “service” their members but rather to re-empower them. The role of an Organiser, working within the Organising and Leverage unit in Unite- is to “lead workers into struggle, to help them learn from their collective experience and to show workers their own power”.
There is nothing subtle about this statement. It is an overt and confident assertion that working class people have been disempowered not only by an increasingly hostile and ever-changing capitalist system, but that they too have been disempowered by the lack of political trade unionism. And at the lowest end of the scale, in low paid precarious work, are women. Cut out of trade unions for a long time, through disputes over equal pay and a machismo culture, these “fight-back” unions offer a chance for women to become empowered at the point where they have to sell their labour. The organising model has the potential to organise, strengthen and democratise not only the workforce, but to create an environment where women can shape and lead industrial struggles – from the bottom to the top.
Within the organising agenda of fighting unions is a desire to advance the interests of its members politically, as well as industrially. By empowering women within the workplace, and through the organising model, the trade union movement will also help to reengage women in politics. This is a move away from the tokenistic views of women’s representation, but rather a look toward how women can represent, participate and influence in the political sphere.
Whilst acknowledging its imperfections, a country like Cuba, has extremely high levels of participation and representation of women in institutions – in fact, nearly 60% of trade union general secretaries in Cuba are women. Cuba is ranked number 3 in the world when it comes to female participation within the political sphere and in Parliament whilst the UK ranks at just 56 for the same. There is undoubtedly a much wider discussion to be had for these phenomena. However, in the trade union movement, which in despite of its decline, are still the largest bodies in the UK, we must discuss the best way to improve the lot of women in work and in our movement- and how to further women’s interests politically. The best tool we have in the trade union movement right now is the organising strategy. Empowering workers and empowering women are not separate issues; one is linked to the other.
It was women who led the rent strikes in Glasgow nearly 100 years ago. It was women who led the battle for the right to equal pay. It is women who are leading the battle against sexual violence in India, and against political and sexual repression in Russia. By this same spirit it is women who will rebuild the workers movement- and the women’s movement- from the rank and file onwards.
– Cat Boyd is an Organiser for Unite. She writes in her personal capacity
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