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Congress House, London
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Frances O'Grady's speech to TUC Women's Conference 2018​, 7-9 March, Congress House, London.

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Thanks Tracy [Barlow] for that introduction.

And thanks for all your hard work as chair and of course with Community.

Conference, I’m proud to address you in the year of the TUC’s 150th anniversary.

But this isn’t the only anniversary we’re celebrating.

It’s fifty years since Ford sewing machinists went out on strike against sex discrimination in pay.

Seventy years since the Windrush generation arrived to help set up our brilliant NHS.

And only ninety years since women finally won the right to vote.

Others may call it the centenary of women’s suffrage.

But we’ll never forget. Young women and working-class women had to wait another 10 years before they got our basic democratic rights.

Of course, the path of justice is never easy.

None of our advances are gifted.

If we waited for rich and powerful men to discover a conscience, we’d be waiting a very long time.

And, as always, we have to educate, agitate and organise.

Think about those inspiring, irrepressible sewing machinists in Dagenham.

Or the personal courage of the Windrush women – including the nurses - who sailed far from home and, never forget, to face colour bars on senior jobs when they got here.

And remember the suffragettes who fought – and sometimes died – to win the right to vote.

Not least those working-class women who were on the frontline of that battle for suffrage.

But who were at the back of the queue when it came to the fruits of victory.

So we have to stand up and fight for what we believe in too.

And we will need stamina to keep on fighting.

To win true equality, for ourselves, our sisters and for our daughters.

A New Deal for women.

That delivers great jobs and fair wages.

Decent homes and strong communities.

And puts public services, where they belong, back in public hands.

So, whether it’s our NHS and public services:

Whether it’s our dignity and pay at work;

Or – listen up Jacob Rees Mogg - when it’s our our right to make choices about our own bodies:

As women, we need to take back control.

Because when we get organised, we get results.

Last year, our movement secured a magnificent victory.

The Supreme Court’s ruled that tribunal fees which priced workers out of justice were unlawful.

Let’s be clear:

Equal pay; freedom from discrimination; protection against dismissal when you’re pregnant.

Workers’ rights aren’t worth the paper they’re written on unless we have strong trade unions to enforce them.

So let’s all say a big thank you to UNISON for winning for working women everywhere.

And let’s hear it too for all workers who fight long and hard for justice- from Royal Mail to the railways; from McDonalds to Ryanair;

And, last but not least, to Sally and UCU and their stunning ballot result to take action in defence of their pensions.

Forcing the employers back to the negotiating table.

And proving that no anti-trade union law, no anti-democratic threshold, can stop people taking action for a just cause.

I’ve always said that, in our 150th year, the best way to honour our past is to build our future.

And this year of all years, sisters, we have our work cut out.

Just over a year from now, Britain will be leaving the EU.

Whichever way you voted in that referendum, one thing’s for sure.

We need a deal that defends jobs, livelihoods, public services and workers’ rights.

And one which protects the Good Friday Agreement that trade unionists on both sides of the water worked so hard to achieve,

But the Prime Minister is not exactly her own woman.

She’s got 30 -odd hardcore Brexiteers snapping at her heels.

And the DUP hanging around her neck.

And she seems intent on dragging us down with her.

Mrs May says we’re coming out of the Customs Union and the single market.

So we can control our own laws, money and borders.

Except the only land border with the EU we actually have, because apparently the government is developing some special, secret science fiction new technology that will make that unnecessary.

And don’t worry about those rights at work that unions combined our strength across Europe to win. According to the Prime Minister, they will be protected and enhanced.

Parental rights. No discrimination. Equal pay for Work of equal value.

Our rights. Women’s rights. Workers’ rights. She says, they are safe in Tory hands.

And if you believe that, you’ll believe anything.

The hard Right have already got their sights set on the Working Time Directive.

Briefing the Sunday Telegraph that Brexit is an opportunity to get shot of it.

Paid holidays. Limits on long working hours. Protection for night shift workers.

Now some people say we already had those rights.

But, I’m sorry, some people have short memories.

Before the government brought in new laws under that directive millions of workers - especially part time women workers - had no rights to a break at all.

Now the likes of Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Jacob-Rees Mogg want to get rid of it.

What a bunch of Lord Snooties they are:

Boris –  an oversized toddler who seems to think he’s Julius Caesar.

Then there’s Michael Gove – otherwise known as Brutus.

And then Jacob Rees Mogg –Michael Gove’s posher twin brother.

A father of six who boasts he’s never changed a nappy.

Who loathes same-sex marriage.

And opposes a woman’s right to choose, including for women who have been raped.

Johnson, Gove and Mogg.

Just three reasons why the TUC will keep making the case for keeping membership of the single market and customs union as the best way we can see of protecting people’s jobs and rights.

Conference, these are hard times; but they are also exciting times.

The government is in disarray. Labour led by Jeremy Corbyn is resurgent. And real change is possible. But it will take stamina.

We have to lead from the front.

And stand up on the issues that matter most to women workers.

Top of the list is taking on sexual harassment and violence against women, at work and in society.

The ‘Me too’ movement has given fresh impetus to what trade union women have been saying for a long time.

Together we won’t be silent any more.

Whether it happens in the Parliament, a shop office or factory floor, or in a union hall:

We demand sexual harassment stops and it stops now.

Recently, we had the scandal of that Presidents Club dinner.

Young women at the beck and call of drunken, loutish, groping rich business men. All in the name of charity.

And after being forced to sign so-called non-disclosure agreements.

We already know that sexual harassment is rife.

The TUC’s landmark study is now used as the standard reference point.

But at its heart this is about inequality of power.

A lack of respect.

Ritual humiliation of women.

Not just bosses who abuse their power.

But customers and sometimes workmates too.

Many women don’t speak out because they worry they won’t be believed; or even if they did report it that no action will be taken anyway.

Some, as we have seen in the charity sector or politics, are programmed to believe that speaking out would be disloyal to the cause.

I think we need to change that.

It isn’t the victims of harassment who are being disloyal.

It’s the perpetrators of harassment who are disloyal.

And they must be dealt with.

And that goes for our movement too.

Sexual harassment is symptomatic of wider inequalities.

Inequalities that mean women are still paid less than men.

Less valued and not heard.

And less likely to be in senior leadership roles – including, sadly, in our own movement.

Fifty years in from the Dagenham strike and there is still a stubborn pay gap.

Next month the new reporting duties come into place.

We’ve already had a glimpse of how companies such as EasyJet, the Co-op Bank and Virgin Money are faring.

And that’s badly.

The BBC, are no better.

And it’s only right that we pay tribute to the BBC unions, including the NUJ and their member, former China editor Carrie Gracie.

When Carrie asked why she was being paid less than men doing less demanding jobs she was told – and this as an exceptional and experienced fifty something journalist - that she was still being developed.

Sisters - how dare they?

But the BBC is no isolated case.

This is a problem across broadcasting and across workplaces, up and down the land.

Now of course we want the right to proper equal pay audits. Stronger employment rights.

And transparency in pay,

But let’s not wait for a change in the law.

Let’s go back to our unions, and demand that our unions make winning equal pay a top priority for collective bargaining now.

And that takes me onto our third challenge:

And that’s to rebuild our collective strength as a trade union movement.

By organising young workers – especially young women.

The best way – the only way – to respond to the Trade Union Act is to build back stronger.

A movement of and for young workers.

Most young people are employed in the private sector service economy.

But barely more than one in 20 are in a union.

And we know from our research that many haven’t even heard of unions.

Unions have a great story to tell.

We know young people share our values.

And there are some brilliant examples of young workers getting themselves organised.

Like those fantastic workers at Ritzy Cinemas who went on strike for the living wage.

Those brave women at Sports Direct who exposed grotesque exploitation.

And those magnificent young people at McDonalds who are taking on one of the most powerful multinationals in the world.

Over this last year the TUC and unions have been working with hundreds of unorganised young workers.

Listening not lecturing.

Finding out what they want to change at work and how they want to organise.

That’s why we’ll soon be launching a new model of digital organising – based on helping young people get on at work and in life.

Throughout our history, we do best when we are brave.

When we take risks, open our minds and hearts to new thinking and new forms of collective action.

Back in 1868 a group of men in the Manchester and Salford Trades Council proposed a Congress of trade unions.

And they changed the course of history.

They demanded:

An 8-hour day. Free education. Representation for working-class people in parliament.

Now it’s our turn.

Everything we’ve achieved as a movement, we’ve achieved together: As workers, as trade unionists, and as women.

The trade union movement is the biggest democratic organisation of working women in the country.

Women are now more likely to be union members than men.

This conference matters.

Let’s be ambitious.

Let’s be brave.

Let’s think big.

And let’s organise.

This is our movement. Together let’s lead it.


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