Link to this page: https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/999/27497
How can we fight for trade unions that fight for women?
Sarah Sachs-Eldridge, Socialist Party national organiser
The PCS civil servants' union voted at its recent conference to "step up its work to remove barriers to the participation of women in the activities of the union at workplace, branch and group levels". The motion also proposed a year-long consultation on "rule changes that would ensure that at least 50% of the ordinary NEC [national executive committee] seats are filled by women candidates".
The Socialist Party welcomes this opportunity to debate, as well as all measures to increase the participation of women fighters at all levels of the PCS and all unions. We support all measures that place the trade unions at the centre of the struggle against inequality and women's oppression.
However we do not accept - and nor should the PCS - the idea that being a woman automatically qualifies someone to represent women.
Theresa May is the very obvious proof of that. Like Thatcher before her, her priority is not defending women but the capitalist class and its priorities.
Frances O'Grady is the first woman leader of the Trade Union Congress (TUC) but under her leadership the TUC has not given a lead in the fight against austerity.
Last year, under her leadership, the TUC intervened in the Southern Rail dispute by brokering talks and a deal between Southern Rail and the Aslef union which excluded the RMT. How is this representing RMT members, including the many women workers involved in the dispute?
UCU has a majority women membership (51%), a majority women executive body (60%), and a woman general secretary. But the recent conference was dominated by the struggle being fought against a leadership which is not prepared to lead the struggle demanded by members.
In fact the claim that a woman can better defend women can be used as a weapon by the right wing to undermine the left. Jess Philips has levelled allegations of sexism and misogyny at Jeremy Corbyn on the grounds that both he as Labour leader and the deputy leader are men.
False claims of misogyny and sexism, like false claims of antisemitism, are attempts to undermine Corbyn because of the fear of the capitalist elites that a Corbyn-led government elected on an anti-austerity programme could be pushed to take measures that challenge capitalism.
Nonetheless it is understandable that there is impatience in the search for ways to make the unions, especially the tops, more inclusive of women and representative of the working class as a whole. However, no administrative measure alone can resolve this.
For example, would ensuring that at least 50% of the ordinary NEC seats are filled by women candidates guarantee a union will be more able to fight low pay, job cuts, deskilling and privatisation?
No union has gone as far as public sector union Unison down this road. With 78% of its membership and 62% of its national executive women, it has implemented quotas to a greater level than any other union. Looking at the bald figures this can appear impressive but we have to ask what have been the gains for Unison's members?
It's estimated that by 2020 over one million jobs will have been cut in the public sector. A 2014 TUC report found that within local government, job cuts have had a disproportionate impact on women.
Four years into Tory austerity and 96,000 men in full-time posts had gone (21%), compared with nearly 141,000 (31%) who are women. The situation in the NHS is similarly bleak with women NHS workers in England earning nearly a quarter less than men.
However, we do not want to 'even out' the misery between women and men - our task is to build a united working class movement to transform society and end the exploitation of the working class as a whole.
Low pay itself is an obstacle. Low-paid domestic workers, mainly women, at the Barts health trust in east London went on strike last summer for better pay. Many of them worked two or three jobs to get by, which makes participation in trade union activity harder.
However, the greater obstacle was the refusal by Unison to sanction strike action, only possible once a number of workers had been forced to transfer to Unite. Once action was called women workers were often to the fore on the picket lines.
Lack of time impedes women's participation. The demand for a shorter working week with no loss of pay must be fought for.
In Britain in 2016, according to the Office for National Statistics, women did almost 60% more work in the home, on average, than men. Trade unions can take immediate steps to ameliorate some of the impact of these barriers.
Do unions provide crèches at important events? Is there a straightforward process for getting money for childcare so parents can attend meetings where there isn't a crèche?
Trade unions could make a further impact on women's ability to participate by arguing for a sharing out of household work so that both parents can be active, and by fighting for free public quality childcare, etc.
Are resources made available so low-paid workers, of which over three-fifths are women, are compensated for loss of income incurred by trade union activity? Especially above local level, are there measures that can minimise the problems related to the distances trade union activists need to travel and time away from home?
Fighting for the right to hold trade union meetings in the workplace with no loss of income would be a big step towards reducing some of these obstacles.
A number of unions have put on special training programmes for women activists, which can help build confidence to take on roles in the union. But the experience of organising collective struggle, especially national action, is essential. The PCS's national pay ballot will undoubtedly see new activists, including women, come forward.
Fighting the Tory and Blairite attacks on trade unions will benefit women - from reinstatement of facility time and collective bargaining where it has been lost. PCS members also face a hostile management, which is an added challenge to reps.
Trade union democracy must be defended. The PCS has a very proud record of lay democracy and workplace meetings.
Without doubt, the more members feel they have a say in the unions, the more likely they are to participate in its structures. Building and defending broad lefts, which bring together trade union activists to challenge right-wing trade union leaders, organise solidarity and fight for and defend militant programmes and action is important.
We want more fighting women leaders of the movement - in fact the present Socialist Party executive committee is majority women. Amy Murphy, a Socialist Party member, was recently elected as the president of the shop workers' union Usdaw.
Amy won on a campaign based on giving Usdaw members, 55% women, a fighting and democratic leadership, and standing for policies such as a £10 an hour minimum wage, an end to zero-hour contracts, supporting members who wish to take industrial action and standing up to companies' attacks on jobs and terms and conditions.
Although this debate is specifically focused on getting more women into trade union leaderships, the first task to address is how to draw more fighting women workers into the unions. Since 1981 women's membership of the trade unions has gone from fewer than one in three to today where women make up 52% of trade union membership.
However, the number of women in the trade unions is almost the same as it was in 1981. 55% of workers today have never been in a union. Only one in five 25-35 year-olds are unionised. Therefore recruiting young women workers, women workers in the private sector and part-time jobs, and more workers in general, remain key tasks for the trade unions.
This will require first and foremost that the unions show they are capable of winning for their members. Showing they will fight on period poverty, childcare, the closure of women's refuges and the bread-and-butter issues, especially for those in low paid and part-time jobs, is key to attracting women workers.
Women make up around two-thirds of public sector workers so are at the sharp end of privatisation. 73% of those affected by the public sector pay freeze were women.
Nine out of ten workers in Britain who work in bars, restaurants and hotels report sexual abuse from employers, managers or the public. Zero-hour contracts and other attacks on workplace rights make women more vulnerable and less confident to challenge harassment and discrimination.
These attacks are the result of Tory government austerity and pro-big business measures. Right-wing Labour councils have played their part by, instead of taking a no-cuts position and fighting the Tories, passing on austerity and privatisation.
But right-wing trade union leaders have not mobilised the enormous potential power of the trade union movement against austerity.
The trade unions can play a vital role in defending workers against the bosses' attempts to drive down pay and conditions. Women who are members are paid on average 30% more than those who are not.
Fifty years ago, women members of the National Union of Vehicle Workers who produced car seat covers in Dagenham went on strike to demand the end to their unequal pay by the Ford car manufacturer. Their strike inspired support from male trade unionists and their victory paved the way for equal pay legislation.
United working class struggle like this is the most effective way of advancing women's wages and conditions and improving public services. The PCS has a strong record of defending trade unions as fighting bodies of the working class.
This includes organising resistance to Tory attempts to bankrupt the union through removing check-off, and fighting privatisation, for example of the land registry.
The trade unions can also show in action that they can play a vital role in the fight against sexism. In the early 1990s the Socialist Party spearheaded the Campaign Against Domestic Violence (CADV) which fought for domestic violence to be seen as a trade union and workplace issue, not only a personal one.
This meant trade unions adopting policy and fighting for workplace rights for victims of domestic violence - when time off was needed for example. This showed women workers they were valued by the trade unions, that the unions were not tolerant of domestic violence, and that they could win greater rights for workers.
This could not be based on women members alone but required a united struggle to overcome prejudices, and the maximum unity of the working class in action to win improvements for workers.
CADV won the support of hundreds of trade union branches as well as the backing of national unions. Many employers and councils also adopted these policies.
Today women's services, including refuges for those fleeing domestic violence, are being shut - including by women-led Labour councils.
Like all forms of sexism and oppression that exist under capitalism, this affects working class women. Trade unions must be central to the struggle to fight back.
In The Socialist 13 June 2018:
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