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Towards a Feminist Trade Union Movement

Women now make up the majority of union members in Britain and increasingly lead labour struggles across the world – but their unions too rarely reflect them. It's time for that to change.

When we survey the progress of feminist struggles within the international labour movement on International Women’s Day 2021, we can find plenty of reasons to be optimistic. Some of the most compelling actions by trade unions in the past few years have been organised and taken by women.

The resistance to the recent coup in Myanmar has been led by women in the garment workers’ unions. American teachers’ unions have defended public education—another sector with an overwhelmingly female workforce—in wave after wave of industrial action, from Chicago to West Virginia to Los Angeles. These examples reflect a pattern of activism led by women in industries where broad attacks on working conditions have gone hand in hand with gender-specific forms of exploitation.

UK unions are following in their international sister unions’ footsteps. The National Education Union has mounted bold high-participation campaigns to keep schools safe during the pandemic. The Royal College of Nursing is currently gearing up for what could be the first large-scale strike in its history.

Some of the best campaigns against outsourcing are being led by the migrant women and women of colour who suffer most from that deeply harmful employment practice, in unions like PCS, IWGB, and UVW. Meanwhile, my own union, the University and College Union, called UK-wide strike action in universities last year over the gender pay gap and other issues that disproportionately affect women in our workplaces.

Unions are most effective when their collective demands aim to address gendered and racialised injustices. Take UCU, for example, where we centre the issues of precarious employment and workload in our campaigning, as well as the gender and race pay gaps. Our women members are disproportionately likely to be employed on insecure contracts, and women of colour even more so.

The same groups are also disproportionately likely to be burdened with excessive workloads, as a recent UCU survey on pandemic working conditions has confirmed. All of this is compounded by the fact that the labour of social reproduction—of biological reproduction, of providing for families, of caring for dependents—still falls disproportionately on women.

To recognise all of these interlinked issues and factor them into a union’s struggles is to ‘organise the whole worker’, as American organiser and author Jane McAlevey puts it. Whole worker organising starts with the recognition that workers belong to communities and have identities and commitments that shape their experience of the workplace in different ways. When unions restrict their ambitions to a narrow range of issues and ignore the realities of gendered oppression, they miss opportunities to bring people together and win lasting, meaningful change.

But when they turn their attention to problems like outsourcing, precarious employment, and unfair workloads, unions can not only achieve gender equality but also achieve victories that benefit the whole workforce – including men as well as women and non-binary people. The ongoing renewal of the trade union movement requires us to maintain a broad, inclusive understanding of industrial struggle, grounded in an intersectional analysis of the ways in which workplace oppression and other forms of social injustice relate to each other.

However, we still have a very long way to go. There are reasons to be more pessimistic about the place of women in today’s trade union movement. Many trade unionists do not currently hold the expansive view of collective bargaining and industrial militancy which I just articulated. The unions which I have mentioned are relative outliers, even compared with some other unions in their own sectors. A great deal of work inter-union organising and solidarity work needs to be done to consolidate their achievements.

And the challenges facing the cause of women and non-binary people in the movement go much deeper than that. They cover a whole range of issues that are still regarded as secondary concerns when they should be fundamental for any organisation with an interest in social justice and radical change.

This tendency was reflected in one of the highest-profile news stories about unions in the past year: the allegations of sexual abuse involving a senior leadership figure in the GMB. The official report by Karon Monaghan QC into the culture of misogyny and sexual abuse within that union offered an unsparing analysis of endemic bullying, harassment, and violence against women, enabled by aggressive gatekeeping behaviours and power imbalances between different levels of the union’s hierarchy.

This is not to single out the GMB: it is a problem we all face because similar cultures exist in other unions. The challenge is to have the courage to acknowledge this and create spaces where women can come together and make plans to do something about it. When I spoke about sexual violence at a TUC meeting for women this time last year, woman after woman in the audience responded with stories of harrowing experiences which they had had within their own unions.

And yet I have seen very little public or private discussion amongst trade unionists of the Monaghan report’s significance for the movement as a whole. We need to learn more from our counterparts in the student movement and adopt a more outspoken, uncompromising and self-conscious stance on this issue.

Unions that enable sexual violence are saying to the employers they negotiate with and the workforces they aspire to represent that they do not care about one of the most serious problems afflicting women and non-binary people (and many men) in the workplace. Unions that tolerate individuals or groups with a record of sexual abuse are holding a red flag up to women and other survivors, signalling that it is not safe for them to attend union events, get involved as workplace representatives, or participate in other ways.

They are saying that they are not equipped to tackle workplace bullying and harassment more generally, because they cannot deal with it in their own organisation. They are undermining their own ability to contribute to the kinds of ambitious, whole-worker struggle which I referred to at the start of this article.

As with survivors of sexual violence, there is a similar relegation of other groups to a secondary, contingent status within the larger gender politics of the movement: for example, trans and non-binary people, and sex workers. Too many self-styled feminists in the movement refuse to take sex workers seriously when they organise and collectively demand full decriminalisation. Too many are willing to share platforms with and actively promote transphobes.

Too often, organised groupings within trade unions and the wider will aggressively police the boundaries of acceptable opinion on certain issues, however trivial, while remaining unwilling to challenge sex-worker and trans exclusionary views which they encounter within their ranks. There is a demoralising sense that misogyny, transphobia, and hostility to sex work are not considered to be counter-revolutionary attitudes in the way that support for fiscal austerity, say, or for anti-union legislation would be.

There are potential solutions. We have to start by recognising that the formal structures and customs of most unions are patriarchal. Meetings, debates, elections and other activities are often conducted with a view to establishing power, authority and domination rather than building consensus. Rules and standing orders inadvertently or deliberately exclude marginalised groups and people with caring responsibilities.

The answer lies in adopting the most ambitious possible programme of radical feminist change within unions. Not just more seats for women at a table built by men; not just a place for women in the collective bargaining agenda; but a root-and-branch reconsideration of the way gendered oppression structures the labour movement as a whole.

All of this work has to be done at the same time or none of it will make a lasting difference. It is time to complement the extraordinary struggles of women on the ground, in branches, against their bosses, with a wider critical look at the institutions that support their organising. If the women currently leading labour struggles throughout the UK were to design new trade unions from scratch, they would not design them as they currently are.

We need to create genuinely horizontal and safe spaces within unions, rather than claiming we already have them. Slogans can be glib and unsatisfying, but the one chosen for this year’s IWD—‘Choose to challenge’—serves well enough to describe the spirit which I want to see my women and non-binary comrades carry into the next twelve months of activism and beyond.