With unemployment among women at a 20-year high, a new wave of female union leaders and activists has come to the fore, reviving the fight for workers’ rights when they are under greater threat than ever
In 1943, Women’s Own reported an astonishing feat. “Job experts said that no woman could do boring, screwing a breech ring for the barrel of a six-pounder tank gun in a giant lathe, but Miss Megan Lewis, 22… has been doing it at the ordnance factory where 80% of machine operatives are women. She said, ‘I learned by watching the setter at the machine. Officials were astounded.'”
During the second world war, most women were at work against the wishes of the trade unions. Traditionally, unions argued that men needed to earn a “family wage” sufficient to keep a wife and children and this should not be undercut by women claiming male skilled jobs and equal pay; a woman’s place was in the home. Employment was – and still often is – segregated. Men then were employed in heavy industry, women in the low-paid business of care, secretarial and admin work and the service sector.
Trade unions are an important component in a democratic society, but for decades they did not serve women well. Strikes and negotiations were a beer-and-sandwiches job almost exclusively conducted by and for “the brothers”. Meetings were at night, when most women were at home engaged in ironing shirts and childcare. “I’m all right, Jack” was the slogan while, with honourable exceptions, the men paid scant attention to the needs of Jill, often the sole breadwinner in the family. The image of the average trade unionist was a white, working-class and blue-collar bloke: “male, pale and stale”.
Today, the average British trade unionist is a young, degree-educated, white woman working in the professions. Women outnumber men. In their prime in the 1970s, unions had more than 13 million members. Now, they have 6 million; only 28% of the working population is unionised – less than 20% in the private sector. Women have become vital to the survival of unions. In a yet more extraordinary change, this autumn, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) the umbrella body for 54 affiliated unions, will welcome Frances O’Grady, 52, its first female general secretary in 144 years. “We like to take our time,” she says.
Former TUC leader Lord Monks says she has “diplomacy, charm and imagination”. Another senior union official says: “She won’t just make history because she is female. She knows the trade union movement has to modernise. It has to attract people interested in the creation of a different kind of economy. This is a difficult time for trade unions, but it’s also an opportunity. And it helps that it’s a woman who’s got that opportunity.”
O’Grady, one of five children, was educated at an Oxford comprehensive; her dad worked at the Cowley car factory. She raised her two children alone and knows what it means to be a carer. She has also been a champion of part-time workers and the low-paid and argued the need for a minimum wage in the 1980s. Unlike many of her male colleagues, she has risen through the ranks without the benefit of a stay-at-home wife. Kevin Maguire of the Daily Mirror says she could yet prove David Cameron’s nemesis. O’Grady has been in the forefront of bringing on a small army of younger women via the organising academy she set up in 1998 – it runs a 12-month crash course for union officials and a support network. Becky Wright, 32, was a graduate and is now the academy’s director.
She says: “When I was 19, I was asked if I’d thought about joining a union. I wasn’t entirely sure what that meant. They said, ‘Do you want to learn how to be a campaigner?’ And I thought, ‘Yes I do.'”
At the academy, Wright worked with the Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association (TSSA) to unionise people in travel agencies. “It didn’t go all that well,” she says, smiling. “What we realised is that if a union only has money to hire five people, including me, is it feasible to try to organise 22,000 people in [now defunct travel agent] Lunn Poly?”
TSSA is in a male-dominated industry. Wright was then 21: did she encounter sexism? “Not so much sexism as geekiness. If you work in a rail union you become incredibly geeky about trains. Even I knew the differences between a 125 or 225 train.” Ageism, she says, has been more of a battle, a point other young women also make. “The response was often, ‘You are 10 to 20 years younger than me. What can you tell me?’ But after five minutes or so, we’d get on with the business in hand. Since then, I’ve worked in a lot of places where women are in the majority. It’s taken for granted. That’s just the way it is.
“A strong union usually means that the pay gap is narrower and conditions are better. More than that, there’s also openness and transparency, for women in particular; that’s important. Without it, that’s when discrimination takes place.”
For female officials, a trade union career, unlike 30 years ago, can offer variety, security and good terms and conditions and not just in personnel. Scarlet Harris, 36, TUC women’s officer, worked in the male-dominated RMT union led by the bullish Bob Crow five years ago. “When I first started, I was the only woman in the industrial relations department. Bob Crow was really supportive. I was also well looked after when I was pregnant,” she says.
Natalie Jacottet, 32, read philosophy at university and eight years ago joined the Communication Workers Union (CWU). She has been head of research since 2009. “I was lucky as these jobs don’t come up very often. My motivation was to work somewhere where I care about what we do.”
At Unison, the country’s largest public sector union, 80% of its 1.3 million members are female, many low paid. Poor pay, discrimination in pregnancy and bullying in the workplace are among the issues that many unions still seem listless about. Will that improve when the current generation of female thirtysomethings acquire power as well as responsibility? Sian Rabi-Laleh, 34, from Swansea, is Unison’s national officer for health, part of whose job is to campaign against the threat of privatisation in the NHS. A graduate, she joined Unison six years ago.
“Unison felt like home,” she says. “In campaigning, bargaining, negotiating, the trade union movement is changing. We also have a massive learning and education agenda that attracts women. A person might have left school early but through the union, they have the opportunity to get a degree. One person said, ‘I was told I wouldn’t be worth anything and now I know differently.’ That means something. We try and encourage members to understand that as part of a collective, they can make a change.”
In the 1960s and 70s, collective action was everywhere. Now, it only seems to happen on the first day of the sales. Certainly, the huge increase in female trade union membership in the public sector isn’t down to an outbreak of activism, says Brian Strutton of the GMB, the general workers’ union. In 10 years, the GMB has recruited 100,000 teaching assistants. “Changes to membership often reflect what’s happening in the economy rather than changes to society or union policy,” Strutton says. “The GMB is now nearly 50/50 [male/female] membership, yet the number of women as branch officers, workplace reps and national officers is nowhere near a reflection of that proportion and that’s despite huge efforts to increase participation. We’ve still got a hell of a long way to go.”
What will encourage a woman to sign up? Perhaps Twitter, Facebook and new social media can help, stoked by anger at government cuts. Tough times are back. We have the highest female unemployment rate for 20 years, workers’ rights are being eroded, services being slashed. Alice Hood, 32, is senior policy officer for public services at the TUC. She is helping to organise a TUC mass demonstration in London on 20 October under the banner “A future that works”. She says unions have to be more imaginative about how they recruit. “We should ask a woman how she wants to get involved and support her to do that at any level of commitment, not expect her to fit into a fixed structure,” she says.
Nigerian-born Helen Parker-Jayne Isibor, 30, says she is trying to recruit by example. She is a professional singer, songwriter and composer whose album, The Venus Bushfires, is out in October. She is also a member of two committees for the Musicians’ Union. “When I was asked to stand I said, ‘Who’s going to vote for me?’ And I was told, ‘Other people like you.’ So I hope other women will say, ‘If she can do it, so can I.'” Helen’s hair is a statement all on its own: there is 30ft of it. Draped on a bamboo cane. She describes it as “part-geisha, part bonsai tree… I like to feel very rooted.” She always works to Musicians’ Union agreements. “Collective bargaining matters because it sets a standard. I am creative but I also need to earn a living. I’ve got a voice, I have a responsibility to use it.”
So what has really changed for women in the trade union movement? Is sexism, racism and discrimination dying out or simply better camouflaged? Are tomorrow’s potential union heads developing a different kind of leadership from the men – or are some just as bullying as the macho union stereotype? And how do female veterans of the earlier battles gauge progress?
In 1959, the then 16-year-old Brenda Dean, now Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde, went to work as a secretary in a printing firm. At 28, she successfully stood for election as an assistant secretary of the Manchester branch of the male-dominated Society of Graphical and Allied Trades (Sogat). “I won elections because we only put initials on the election papers. I was BD, otherwise I’d never have won. A reporter from the Manchester Evening News said that must mean women now had equality. I was single. I said, when a mum with two kids at home can do this job, that’s when we’ll begin to motor.”
Dean adds: “When I was handling my first redundancies, the male officials said the part-time women should go first because they were only working for pin money. I said I couldn’t do that. I was there to represent the whole union.”
In 1983, she became the first woman president of Sogat and in 1985, its general secretary, almost immediately taking on Rupert Murdoch and the year-long Wapping strike, a battle the union eventually lost. “During Wapping, even men on my own side were saying, ‘She’s bound to have a breakdown.’ So in one press conference, I said, ‘I’ve got something personal to say. Do I look like I’m going to break down in tears?’
“Unions have been through a very tough period,” Dean says. “It’s time for rebirth and renewal. Women are vital to that. But we’re in a very fragile place at present.”
Only 15 of the 54 unions affiliated to the TUC are led by a woman. Gail Cartmail, 57, failed her 11-plus and, at 15, began work as a hairdresser’s apprentice before joining a publishing company. “I discovered that the young man next to me doing exactly the same job was earning more. My dad said, ‘Join a union”, so I did.” She joined the National Graphical Association. Sexism and racism were rife, she says. “If you complained about sexual harassment, the response was, ‘Who’d want to harass you?’ We said that union meetings should be at a time and a place convenient for women, not just for blokes who drank beer. We fought to put other issues on the agenda and for time during the working day for cervical cancer screening. Then we could say, ‘And what about screening for testicular cancer too?’ A win for women is a win for every worker.”
In the 1980s, fed up with the all-male panels and conference speakers, Cartmail was a founder member of Swomp – Socialist Women on Male Platforms – providing a long list of female speakers and occasionally issuing statements from Swomp high command. Swomp was followed by affiliate Owine – One Woman Is Not Enough. In a blog in 2010, she pointed out that only 20% of the speakers at the TUC conference that year had been female.
Cartmail is now an assistant general secretary at Unite. Two years ago, she unsuccessfully stood for election for the top post. “I was never going to win but I thought it unconscionable that there should be only male candidates.” She pointed out that union heads need to do more than “willy-waving … the progress we made is getting lost.”
Research indicates that while black and ethnic minority women are more likely than any other group to join a union, they are even more severely under-represented at leadership level. Sharon Holder, 46, the GMB national officer for schools, is the most senior female union official working in the public services. “Black people join unions because who else is there to defend us?” she says. Her parents were originally from Grenada. She represents 400,000 GMB members. She left school in west London at 15 and eventually became a carer for older people. At 22, she joined the union. In the 1980s, she became a housing caretaker. “I was isolated, harassed and intimidated by both management and my work colleagues,” she says. “If I’d complained to the management, they would have said, ‘This isn’t the environment for a woman.'”
Holder says sexism and racism “haven’t changed dramatically, they’ve just become less overt. At the back of my mind in negotiations, sometimes, I think, ‘Have these talks been difficult because I’m black? Or perhaps it’s dealing with a strong woman that some men find difficult?’
“If all you see at the top is men, that means when you come across a woman further down the chain, you don’t have to show her respect because in your mind, she’s not going anywhere. If I get that kind of reaction, I give them a glare, which means, ‘Back off!’ But that’s a very male way to behave and why should I have to do that?”
Professor Geraldine Healy of the University of London has conducted a two-year study of 130 white and black women union leaders in the US and Britain. Co-authored with Professor Gill Kirton, Women and Union Leadership is published in the autumn. In it, many women talk of “walking a tightrope” to survive in “a boy’s club”. One young white British trade unionist says: “Although there are a lot of women where I work, it’s very macho and can be very aggressive in all aspects… ” The “queen bee” still exists, keeping other females out because there’s only room for one token woman. According to Healy and Kirton’s research, alliances between women can be punished. Senior men blocked one woman for promotion because she publicly supported another woman’s appointment.
Professor Healy says that, nevertheless, women union leaders have a strong sense of accountability. Anti-racism and social justice count. Many articulate the need for women to work collaboratively, build consensus from the bottom up and help others. One used the phrase made popular by the black American activist Angela Davis in 1994, saying the aim for a woman trade union leader should be to “lift as you rise”.
A number of the younger women I talked to said a union had given them a second chance in life. Joanne Thomas, 33, of Leeds, is one of the most senior women at shopworkers’ union Usdaw, the fourth-largest union in Britain with 420,000 members. She had a child at 17 and took a part-time job in a warehouse. She became a shop steward at 18. “People didn’t take to us very well at first. I was a bit cocky. I had to earn my place with the management and the members.”
She adds: “The union’s given me knowledge, confidence, skills. I’ve been on a lot of courses. I was earning £4,000 a year when my daughter was young. Now I have a career.” At 21, she was promoted to area organiser. “I was responsible for 4,500 members and 100 shop stewards. Usdaw took a real chance appointing me and I respect that.
“Are we still working in man’s world? Sometimes. Very rarely do I negotiate with women. Of course, at times when I’ve walked into a room with a male colleague, it’s assumed he’s my boss but I know I have the knowledge and experience so it’s up to me to be the best I can be. I’m responsible for 57,000 people; when we get good results for our members in this tough economic climate, there’s no feeling like it.”
It’s a paradox that the current economic climate pushing many women unwillingly back into the home might also provide the spark to revitalise unions, in the public sector at least. The future of the unions is definitely female but, in 10 years’ time, will the sisters rising up have been neutered – or will their fire still be burning bright?
Frances O’Grady says she was heartened when she visited the picket lines during the one-day public sector strike on November last year, the biggest strike in a generation. “It was overwhelmingly young women who had never been on strike before, never been on a picket line, never spoken to the media. Yet they made the most eloquent exposition of their case. More than 80% of young people supported that strike. There was a spontaneous sense that they knew it was time to stand up for something that was fair and right. The challenge for the unions is how to build on that desire for a fairer society; how to turn that support into an organisational strength.”