Trade unions are the forgotten friend of feminism

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Trade unions are the forgotten friend of feminism

By Rebecca Winson


Filipino nurses at a protest against bad working conditions, supported by UNISON. (© LondonNurse)

‘I don’t know many people who are feminists and in a trade union,’ Laura, a feminist from Glasgow, tells me.

I’m not surprised. Lots of people don’t understand when I say how wonderful trade unions are. They have done so much for us: they got us our weekend – two days with no work every week; and they got good work conditions for us. So neoliberals have spent the past 30 years making sure that most people know very little about them.

But I think what Laura says is sad. Because if feminists don’t know about trade unions, it’s like an apple pie that doesn’t know about ice cream.

Why do we have laws to make sure we get equal pay? Because of a strike, supported by the union at the Dagenham Ford Factory. Who started International Women’s Day? People from trade unions. What’s the only way to not pay legal costs for a sex-discrimination case? If you are a union member. The trade union movement is one of feminism’s best friends.

It hasn’t always been like this. The women’s movement has always been connected to the left, but trade unions always thought men were more important until the 1970s. The strikers in Dagenham won, but only after they had to fight very hard to get the men to support them. Jenny, a retired activist, says that ‘at that time, if a woman spoke, a man would say “what Jenny really means is...”’ Another retired activist, Paul, agrees. ‘I used to say it was wrong all the time.’

There is still some of that today. Laura feels unions are ‘boys’ clubs’, and trade union training still teaches workplace reps how to fight against this. Unions are not very good at communicating this message. And because of sexism in the past, the link between feminism and unions was broken. But there’s little reason today for not building this link again.

Because union members have complained, union are now making a big effort to have the same equality they demand from employers. Unions now make sure they include everyone in the campaigns: women, LGBT, BAME [Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic], immigrant workers and workers with disabilities. And they listen to all groups and let them all speak. One good campaign was the GMB union’s Putting the T back into LGBT; and the work by Unison with Filipino nurses to stop the exploitation has been very good too.

Unions have been very good, for a long time, at supporting different discriminated groups. They are very good at solidarity. Unions have people from every area of society – and they all support the others. The older men in the unions are now fighting for feminist laws to go through parliament. They are supporting campaigns like No More Page 3 (naked women in The Sun newspaper) and they fight for sex education to teach about domestic violence. Unions are still fighting for people who many feminist groups have stopped fighting for: eg. sex workers.

And it’s working: more people are joining unions, and the average member is a young woman. It’s not surprising: projects like Everyday Sexism and the recent TSSA Equal pay claim show that women still suffer from inequality at work, eg. sexual assault, and little things like being asked to serve the tea in meetings. It’s only natural that we look for some protection and support.

I’m not saying that trade unions could replace the whole feminist movement – feminism is more than problems at work. But it’s clear that we work best when we work together: unions have learned from feminism and unions have helped feminist campaigns.

And we need to work better. This summer and autumn there will be protests and strikes by unions to fight against cuts to the National Health Service (NHS) and public sector. Both these areas are used more by women and employ more women than men.

Unions are fighting for us, and we need to fight with them. Because – and who would believe this? – solidarity actually works.

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