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Trade unions are feminism’s forgotten ally

Trade Unions
Nurses protest

Filipino nurses at a UNISON-supported protest against poor working conditions. © LondonNurse

‘I can count on one hand the number of people in my social circles who class themselves as feminist and are members of a trade union,’ Laura, a feminist from Glasgow, tells me.

Sadly, I’m not surprised. Lots of people look at me blankly when I start to rhapsodize about trade unions, whose efforts have, over the years, won for us two non-working days each week (the ‘weekend’) and decent working standards – so neoliberals have spent the past 30 years making sure that most people know very little about them.

But I am frustrated by what Laura says, because feminists not knowing about trade unions is like apple pie not knowing about ice cream.

The reason we’ve got equal pay legislation? A union-backed strike at the Dagenham Ford Factory. The people who set up International Women’s Day? Unionists. The only way to avoid paying tribunal fees for a sex-discrimination case? By being a union member. The trade union movement is one of the biggest allies feminism has.

This hasn’t always been the case. Despite historical links between the women’s movement and the left, unions put male members first up until the 1970s. The Dagenham strikers won, but only after a hard struggle for their male comrades’ support. Jenny, a retired activist, says that ‘in those days, if you spoke, a man would say “what Jenny really means is...”’ Another retired activist, Paul, agrees. ‘I used to kick off about it all the time. What went on was wrong.’

The effects of all that stick around. Laura talks of feeling unions are ‘boys’ clubs’, and trade union training for workplace reps still covers how to counter this. Combined with unions failing to get the message out generally, historic sexism is a large reason for a once thriving link between the two movements drying up. But there’s little reason today for it not being revived.

Spurred on by members ‘kicking off’, unions have made a concerted effort to ensure that they uphold the same standards of equality they demand from employers. Women, LGBT, BAME [Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic], immigrant workers and workers with disabilities are all actively included in campaigns and given both a voice and a listening ear. The GMB union’s ‘Putting the T back into LGBT’ campaign deserves particular mention, as does Unison’s work with horrifically exploited Filipino nurses.  

In short, they’ve been doing ‘intersectionality’ since before it was cool, and could teach feminism a thing or two about solidarity. Unions are made up of every section of society – and they all support the others. The ‘old boys’ still around are now cheering feminist motions through parliament, backing of the No More Page 3 campaign and calls for sex education which teaches about domestic violence. Unions have even stepped up where many feminist groups have stepped down: sex workers, ostracized by many mainstream feminists, have found support and solidarity through the IUSW.

And it’s working: union membership is on the increase, and the average member is a young woman. It’s no wonder: as projects like Everyday Sexism and the recent TSSA Equal pay claim show, women are still suffer a marked disadvantage in the workplace, reporting everything from sexual assault to being asked to serve the tea in meetings. It’s only natural that we should seek some protection and support.

I don’t mean to suggest that the entire feminist movement could be replaced by the trade unions – there’s more than just workplace issues at play in feminism. But it’s clear, from both the lessons unions have learned from feminism, and the help unions have given to feminist campaigns, that we’re at our best when we’re together.

And quite frankly, we need to be. This summer and autumn will see months of protests and strikes by unions, who are fighting against cuts to the National Health Service (NHS) and public sector, both of which aren’t only used more by women than men, but which employ more women than men. Unions are fighting for us, and we need to fight alongside them. Because –  and who’d have thought it? – solidarity actually works.

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