A woman’s place is in the leadership of her union

by Frances O’Grady on 25th July 2019

As the workforce is feminised and women come to predominate among union members, the next step is assuming leadership roles in the trade-union movement.Women have always been at the forefront of fighting for workers’ rights, including in the UK.
In 1888, women and girls went on strike at the Bryant & May match factory in East London against long hours and appalling working conditions. Their action led to the banning of toxic white phosphorus, which had ruined so many lives.
Eighty years later in 1968, strike action taken by seamstresses at Ford in Dagenham laid the groundwork for the Equal Pay Act, the 50thanniversary of which we’ll mark next year.
And just last year, thousands of women council workers in Glasgow took part in the UK’s biggest ever strike for equal pay, putting the issue of equality for low-paid women on to the national agenda and winning hundreds of millions of pounds in back pay.
This year marks the centenary of the first international standards on maternity protection, a reminder of the power of women trade unionists coming together across borders to deliver change.
The overall picture is clear: when working women come together and take action, we win.
Segregation and inequality
Together, we must continue to challenge occupational segregation, unequal pay and the institutionalised undervaluing of women’s work. And to ensure that our workplaces are safe, supportive and comfortable spaces for women.
In Britain there are great examples of unions transforming the workplace for women. The Royal College of Midwives has provided excellent guidance and training on menopause. Unite has campaigned for period dignity at work. And USDAW’s Freedom from Fear for retail workers has helped to protect workers most at risk from public abuse.
But in order to change the world of work, we must also change our own movement, ensuring that women—as well as black and minority ethnic, LGBT+ and disabled workers—are encouraged to shape and lead our trade unions.
Women have made considerable gains within our leadership and democracy structures and now outnumber men in the movement.
We are increasingly holding positions at all levels of seniority. In recent years, we’ve benefited from female presidents of the Trades Union Congress, as well as female leaders of the European Trade Union Confederation and the International Trade Union Confederation, and within the UK movement we have more than 15 female general secretaries.
Under-represented in leadership
Despite this progress, however, women remain proportionally under-represented in union-leadership roles and women in unions face many of the same barriers as our sisters in other sectors. There’s lots we can do to make sure women get more involved at every level of our movement, from becoming representatives and convenors to getting elected as general secretaries.
The fight for equality doesn’t stop when we clock off. The gendered division of domestic work still disadvantages women, who perform 75 per cent of unpaid care work.
Women still make up the vast majority of those in low-paid, part-time work—prevented from achieving their potential by the lack of flexible work and, particularly in Britain, by the soaring cost of childcare.
This is bad news for employers too. Workplaces that fail to design their structures to suit women and others with caring responsibilities will be unable to attract and retain talent. That’s why the TUC wants every worker to have a right to flexible working, from day one in the job.
New challenges
Women in the workforce also face new challenges. The nature of work and the skills we need are transforming at tremendous speed.The explosion in insecure work and the impact of automation on women’s jobs could present real problems.
As the economy changes, the benefits must not be hoarded by billionaire executives but shared with working people. Advances in digital technology should be used to create more productive and satisfying work. And as automation drives higher productivity, workers must share in the benefits in the form of reduced working hours.
Our movement has always fought for workers to have more time away from work, to spend with loved ones and in their communities. Trade unions won the eight-hour day; we won the weekend. So in the 21st century let’s up our ambition again and win a standard four-day week with no loss of pay.
Recent statistics show that the British trade-union movement is growing. We gained more than 100,000 members in the last year. So those who predicted the death of the movement may have spoken a bit too soon. But we do face major challenges and we can only overcome them if our movement is run for and by workers from right across our society—whatever their gender, race, religion, age or sexuality.
Together we can tackle the soaring inequality that’s damaging our democracies and communities, as well as our economies. We can crack down on insecure work, fight inequality and discrimination, take on the far right and deliver decent pay and conditions for all.
Organised women workers have achieved so much throughout our movement’s history. And we’re not about to stop now.
(Frances O’Grady has been general secretary of the Trades Union Congress in Britain since 2013. She is the first woman to occupy the post.)
– Social Europe