New Internationalist

Trade unions are feminism’s forgotten ally

Nurses protest [Related Image]
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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  1. #1 Beulah 31 Jul 14

    It took a unionized feminist (and Elizabeth Gaskell) to educate me about just how feminist unions can be and I never see unions and feminism linked in the press, even when discussing things like the pay gap.

    But! I wish the author had looked at the historical reasons many feminists don't feel connected to the unions, which are still largely perceived to be a working class organisation. The unions were born out of the working class need for protection in the workplace and feminism was born out of upper-middle class women's need for protection in the home.

    The concerns of a lot of white middle-class feminists still exclude a lot of working class women and I think until feminism deals with it's classism problem it will be difficult to link feminism and the unions together in people's minds.

  2. #2 Rebecca Winson 31 Jul 14

    I could write a whole book about this issue and maybe I will one day - in a small word count, it's difficult to get all the nuances in! I wish I'd looked at those reasons too.

    Completely agree with you about the classism issue. Personally I feel that while unions have often taken on feminist struggles readily, feminism has never been perceived as a movement tied up with class and workers and all that malarkey by feminists themselves because it's leaders have very often been middle or upper class women who simply don't have those concerns.

    Even now most feminist writers/figureheads have Oxbridge degrees and are from families I'd call comfortably off -that's not a problem in itself, but when there's no voices from the council estates alongside that feminism can feel quite exclusionary to working-class girls (I speak from experience).

    That said, very early organisations of women were mostly early trade unions - the match girls strike in London, the garment workers strikes in America. Without women showing the powerful men in charge they could organise later feminist campaigns may not have been taken as much notice of. There's no logical reason apart from top-down sneering that more poor/working women can't be a major part of the feminist movement again, because, basically, they helped start it in the first place.

  3. #3 Beulah 01 Aug 14

    You should write it!

    I think that with regards to feminism and working class women we're talking about who took ownership of the word first. Although much of the early organising was done by working class women it was middle class women (focusing on what were largely perceived as middle class problems) who started using the word ’feminism’ to define the struggle.

  4. #4 Cynthia Stephen 01 Aug 14

    Thanks, Rebecca for writing that piece. Beulah and you have really hit the nail on the head. Feminism, especially in India, despite the protestations of all its adherents, is inextricably linked to its class-caste origins, and has steadily lost its political edge due to its non-cognisance of the day-to-day material realities of the vast numbers of poor and working-class women of India, except to its number one priority of violence against women. The ideological category of feminist, in India certainly, has suffered a serious loss of relevance due to the elite nature of its preoccupations.

    I have been working on these issues for several years, and am at present researching a book on the (non) feminisms - or rather womanisms of the subaltern Indian women. Your write-up confirms several of my assumptions/hunches in this regard. Thank you both!

  5. #5 Marian Lukasik 22 Feb 15

    Trade Unions cheat members and get rich on the proceeds
    My name is Marian Lukasik, I would like to inform The General Public about a Court Case which is taking place on March 2015 at The County Court, Edmonton, 59 Fore Street, London N18 2TN.
    The subject of this case is a law suit against British workers union GMB for not fulfilling their duty according the membership contract (mainly related to organisational support and providing legal support in form of representation before Court).
    I am informing international and local public opinion as well as representatives of the Media about the importance of this case. I would like to invite the interested public to attend the Court hearing.

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