How trade unions address a new set of challenges for women at work

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Frances O’Grady
10 May 2017

The trade union movement has a long and proud history of representing – and winning for – women workers.

From the chainmakers of Cradley Heath and the Bryant & May match workers through to the sewing machinists at Ford in Dagenham, trade union women have organised, bargained and campaigned for a fairer, more equal future for ourselves and our daughters. Now begins another chapter in that collective story.

A record number of women are now in work, the result of decades of profound economic and social change. The decline of manufacturing, the growth of services, new ways of organising work itself all underpinned the increasing feminisation of our labour market. Despite this, women remain second-class citizens in the workplace – more likely to be in low-paid jobs and sectors, more likely to be discriminated against, more likely to lose out when it comes to progression.

As unions get to grips with a cold political climate, we must also address a new set of challenges facing women at work. Perhaps most dramatically, we face a revolution in the workplace whose speed and scale is possibly unprecedented. If the benefits were shared fairly automation, algorithms and new technology could help enrich work but instead they look set to destroy jobs. Similarly, too often the rise of the gig economy risks undermining steady jobs and entrenching decidedly very old-fashioned forms of casualisation. Studies show that women account for the majority of workers on zero-hours contracts, in temporary work or employed by an agency. Meanwhile, women account for just one in four of the workforce in the new digital jobs.

The second challenge before us is facing down the systemic discrimination built into so much of the contemporary labour market. Women are still paid less, promoted less and trained less than their male colleagues – a national scandal in a modern industrial democracy. Occupational segregation is one of the defining contours of our workplace landscape, with women overwhelmingly concentrated in the low-paid “five Cs”: caring, catering, cashiering, cleaning and clerical. Opportunities to work part-time or flexibly in better paying parts of the economy remain painfully thin. And regardless of where they work, pregnant women and mothers returning to work receive a particularly raw deal: well over 50,000 women are forced out of their jobs each year, and one in five new mothers experiences harassment .Yet the introduction of fees for tribunal has made it even harder for women to challenge such discrimination. Since the £1,200 charge was introduced, we have seen a sharp drop-off in the number of discrimination claims – and not because we’ve seen a sharp fall in discrimination.

The third key challenge facing women – indeed all working people – is Brexit. Although the government says it is not seeking to repeal popular rights at work, such as paid holidays, that emanate from the European Union, the real danger is that workers in Britain will begin to fall behind our friends elsewhere. The TUC will be lobbying hard for a positive, progressive deal with the EU that safeguards jobs, investment and rights. The alternative – the UK as a cheap labour, offshore tax haven dependent on the largesse of trade deals with the Trump administration – does not bear thinking about.So this is a critical time for working women in the UK. Trade unions face a uniquely challenging set of circumstances at a time when our legal rights have been severely curtailed. And when it comes to the complex set of issues facing women at work, there is no silver bullet. The solutions lie in a mix of policy, regulation and legislation; stronger trade unions and more collective bargaining; a genuine living wage and modern wages councils setting higher pay rates; investment in our public services; and – as the Women’s Budget Group has rightly argued – investment in our social infrastructure such as social care and childcare.

For our part, the TUC will be calling for a new deal for working women. And that demands a radical change in mindset, so we deliver genuine flexibility for all at work, men as well as women. We urgently require a better supply of well-paid, part-time work at all organisational levels. We need decent, affordable childcare accessible to everyone. And we need fairness for the care workforce too. It cannot be right that care workers in Australia earn the average wage, yet here in the UK they earn significantly less than half.

More broadly, we’ve got to challenge the misrepresentation of the new, precarious world of work as “flexible”, when all the flexibility – indeed all the power – resides with the employer. Just as significantly, we must challenge the deeply entrenched social norm that depicts men as the primary breadwinner and women as the primary carer; that is silent as half of women experience sexual harassment; or that allows the boss to tell women how high their heels should be. The way we think about work; who does what; how it is rewarded – needs to change. Women workers are wealth creators too and want a voice all the way to the top.

All of this poses a challenge for the trade union movement too. With a membership now comprising women and men 50:50, we may be significantly less pale, male and stale than a generation ago, but progress towards genuine gender equality in our ranks – and our culture – has not been rapid enough. If we are serious about reforming the world of work to make it deliver for everyone, then we must be serious about reforming ourselves. We need to look, sound and feel more like today’s workforce, in all of its diversity. And while a new generation of leaders and activists is coming through the ranks, it would be great to have the talents of more black and ethnic minority women (and men) at the fore.

The greatest challenge facing trade unionism is that of renewal. That’s why the TUC is leading a major project to help unions to reach out to, organise and energise a new generation of young members. How we engage with young women will be critical to the project’s success – unions must show they are fully attuned to their concerns and aspirations. Positioning ourselves as champions of great jobs for all – and genuine flexibility for all – will be crucial. Young and old, black and white, blue-collar and white-collar, those born in Britain and those who have chosen it as their home, trade unions must be there for working women of every background.

Ultimately the best protection any woman worker can have is a union card in her pocket. Unionised women earn more, are paid more equally, have better holidays and pensions, and are more likely to receive training than their non-union counterparts. Just as it was a century and more ago, organisation is the difference between begging and bargaining. Although our lives have changed – we bear fewer children, later in life; we have had more formal education; we have benefited from the women’s suffrage and liberation movements – the need for collective organisation remains as urgent now as it ever was. As Mary Macarthur, the inspirational leader of the chainmakers, so famously put it: “Women are unorganised because they are badly paid, and poorly paid because they are unorganised.”

Frances O’Grady is General Secretary of the TUC

This article is an extract from Frances O’Grady’s contribution to the new Fabian Society book This Woman Can: 1997, women and Labour.



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