Currently in Northern Ireland a rape victim seeking to end a pregnancy risks a longer sentence than her attacker. Who will fight for the rights of women when politicians and even the UK Supreme Court will not? This must be our trade union movement, and women must be at the center of the movement in 2018 – the 150th anniversary of the TUC.
Eight years of austerity has taken its toll both on union membership and the nature of the work that union members are doing. Good jobs tend to be unionised, but when they go they are replaced by insecure work with bare minimum rights and benefits, which can be difficult to organise.
Women will have shouldered 86% of the burden of the government’s changes to the tax and benefits system by 2020. Women still earn an average of 18% less than men in our economy. The public sector overwhelmingly runs on the labour of women workers, which is why the government’s recent pay caps affect them more. In the welfare system, thefact that Universal credit is being paid into a single default account for a family will – as women’s groups have argued, undermine women’s economic independence. The 2 child cap and the “rape clause” for benefits is reflective of how detached the government is from the lives of ordinary women.
Two years ago trade unions experienced the biggest membership drop since records began, losing 275,000 members to slip to 6.2 million members in the UK. Figures this year show that membership has risen slightly, though the number of women trade union members fell by 10,000. But the face of trade unionism is changing too - the average British trade union member is a 40 something, degree-educated, white woman working in the professions. Women now outnumber men, and we have the first female General Secretary of the TUC – Frances O’Grady. Senior leadership in unions is still generally male dominated, for now.
It is time for women to get active in their unions, to recognise that the unions belong to them and to use the strength of the union movement to push agendas on women’s issues from abortion rights in Northern Ireland to the gender pay gap across the UK. In modern trade unions, the equality structures are already there, intersectionality is recognised, and the political influence is already there.
A senior trade unionist in the TUC - Becky Wright said "When I was 19, I was asked if I'd thought about joining a union. I wasn't entirely sure what that meant. They said, 'Do you want to learn how to be a campaigner?' And I thought, 'Yes I do'”. We are trade unionists because we want change so we should use every tool in the armoury to achieve it.
‘Made In Dagenham’ depicted the Ford sewing machinists’ strike of 1968. This landmark labour-relations dispute was a catalyst for the Equal Pay Act 1970, and there are plenty of more recent examples of union wins with women at the centre. Think of USDAW’s Freedom from Fear anti-violence campaign for shop workers, Aslefs toilets for train drivers campaign, Unite’s breastfeeding at work campaign and Prospect Union’s newly voted upon menopause policy. 95% of the teaching assistants taking action against pay cuts of up to 25% are women. Female hospital workers, cleaners and catering staff took on the multinational private contractor Aramark in an NHS Trust. Two Ecuadorian cleaners who were members of the United Women of the World Union, launched the campaign against Philip Green’s Topshop for a living wage. Trade unions are a vital mechanism for the powerless to get their voices heard.
Professor Geraldine Healy of the University of London conducted a two-year study of 130 women trade union leaders in the US and Britain. She found that women union leaders have a strong sense of social justice and accountability. Many articulated the need for women to work collaboratively, to build consensus from the bottom up and to help others. One female trade union leader in the study used the phrase made popular by American activist Angela Davis, saying the aim for a woman trade union leader should be to "lift as you rise". Because a woman’s place is in her trade union, owning her trade union and leading her trade union.