Union Revitalisation and Women Workers at the Intersection of Gender and Class

This post is by Hannah Loosley completed the MA in the Social Anthropology of the Global Economy at the University of Sussex in 2017.

Women working in care, catering, cleaning, cashier and clerical jobs (the 5 Cs) have long been neglected in trade unions and politics. Their jobs are seen as ‘extras’ – helping other people be fed and cared for, so they can do their ‘proper’ work.

Traditionally, trade unions have been white, male, blue-collar worker-dominated spaces, but things are changing. More and more unions are setting up networks for women and other underrepresented identities, such as LGBTQ and BME people. But though these groups exist, do their members have a voice at the table? Do they have the power to change the agenda? And do they deal with intersections effectively?

The integration of women into historically male dominated trade unions is not a new issue, and unions have now also been trying to ‘revitalise’ in order to cater to a more insecure workforce.  However, the stories of the Radical Women’s network, below, illustrate that gender and insecure work should be looked at together, because they are experienced together by five Cs women.

‘General’ unions like GMB can appeal to workers in any industry, and are therefore able to expand their membership more easily than unions for specific industries, such as the male-dominated train drivers’ union, ASLEF. Considering that large numbers of workers in the UK are now in precarious employment, and a high proportion of these are women, unions like the GMB need to directly deal with the gendered class issues faced by five Cs women in order to effectively represent current members, and gain new recruits.

The Radical Women’s Network of the GMB North West and Irish Region is a space in which low-paid women engage in union activity.  Here, the intersection between class and gender inequality is recognised, and gendered class issues regularly surface.  In my Master’s dissertation research, I analysed the ways in which the GMB addresses such issues, focusing on pay, career progression opportunities, negative changes to work environments, health and safety, and a lack of enforceable employment rights. This women’s space enables women to discuss these common workplace issues, develop a political consciousness by linking things that affect them to systematic problems, gain confidence, and raise issues as ‘motions’ for the national union to deal with in its political and industrial strategies. Until recently, the regional women’s networks have not all been active and have not been connected, which limits their potential to transform the union in this way.

Since my dissertation was published, however, the first national women’s conference was held in Liverpool. This gave new and experienced women activists from across the country the chance to meet, share their stories, and learn more about what they can do as activists in their workplace and in politics. I strongly hope that as a national women’s network becomes more organised, and financially and logistically supported by the union, the better gendered class issues will be addressed by the GMB.

Laura, Joanne, Grace, Catherine, and Martha* are members of the Radical Women’s Network.  They believe that there’s still a lot left to be done to protect women workers – and they won’t stop until they’ve helped achieve it.

Here’s what they had to say about why women need to be in unions, how to join one, and why language shouldn’t be a barrier to getting involved in politics – ”all you need is the fire in your belly…”

Why women need to be in unions

Laura: “We want what the men have. We want respect.

Access to justice is one of our big sellers as a trade union. We’ve got solicitors who can say, ‘You’ve got a case, and we’ll go for it for you.’ And that’s covered by your few pounds a month. Access to justice… take that away from us and we’re stuffed. Absolutely stuffed.”

I’ve got a girl who works with me, Sarah. She’s 39, and she’s riddled with rheumatoid arthritis. So I make sure she gets two days off, I make sure she gets her hospital appointments, her blood tests, all that off. She doesn’t want to stop work – she’s only 39. You’ve got to look after people, you know. Someone’s got to fight people’s corners.

My first thing about the equal pay question was that the cleaners – or at least that’s what they were called – were doing a lot more than just cleaning. They were doing table service, they were doing food prep… and I thought, this isn’t fair.

We did the equal pay claims against the city council, and we won, because cleaners were considered to be using the same skillset as a gardener, a park keeper, [but weren’t being paid the same amount]. So we got upgraded another level. But if the trade union hadn’t been there, that would never have happened.”

Taking the first step: “You don’t have time to get nervous.”

Laura: “You don’t have time to get nervous. The first one I did was for International Women’s Day. I just went in the door and the head of the union in the region said, ‘You’re sitting over there’ and I just went, ‘Where? Where?’ and he went, ‘There,’ and pointed at the chairperson’s seat. And I didn’t know anything about the speakers, so I was just browsing the internet while everyone was having a brew. But it was good, and since then I’ve not looked back really.”

Joanne: “I had my own branch at one time, but I’ve actually got a memory problem now. I used to be very active. It became my life, you know? And I had three kids, but everything worked around the union.

I’ve been nearly fighting with someone on many occasions, but people will sort of insinuate, “Well, you’re a woman…” Well, yeah. Watch this space. We get a lot done, women. I’m really proud of our reps, proud of them all.”

Laura: “Of course we do. There’s nothing worse than a load of angry people at your door, banging on your door every Monday morning.”

Joanne: “Especially women!”

Grace: “I’m a senior organiser. I became involved in the the union 28 years ago. We were having a really tough time at work, and I didn’t think the trade union were doing anything for us at the time. So I got round a load of women, went to see the officer, and said, ‘Why don’t you organise a mass meeting?’ He said, ‘Well if you’re so clever, why don’t you organise it?’ So I did! There were no senior female figures mentoring people in the union. I was lucky, I had some really good mentors, but they were all men. I see my role and the role of women in the union to mentor other women, and bring them in.”

“Language in politics can bamboozle… all you need is the fire in your belly”

Catherine: “Language in politics can bamboozle. It’ll make ‘ordinary’ people – though I hate using the word ordinary, nobody’s ordinary – feel like politics isn’t for them. It’s striking, coming into a situation where people are well educated and they know a lot about politics, and you feel like you just can’t articulate things like they do.”


Martha: “But you know more about life than they do.”

Catherine: “That’s it – the Women’s Network is about letting women know that that’s all we need. We don’t need to come from universities or colleges or do degrees or diplomas. All we need is to be part of something, and fight for what we believe in… that’s all we need.”

Martha: “I know recently I have real beef talking to people about getting into politics, because they say, ‘I don’t know the language, I’m not articulate enough.’ I say it’s not about that, it doesn’t matter. If you’re passionate enough, it doesn’t matter how many fancy words you know. It’s the opposite. You’ve got to speak in a language people understand. If you’ve got the fire in your belly, that’s what’s relevant. And I actually think that’s why people look at politicians and think, ‘I don’t get it…’ Just because they’ve swallowed a thesaurus, doesn’t mean they know any more than you do!”

Zero-hours contracts, young people, and the future of unions

Laura: “Unions need to gain popularity with young people. Our membership’s increasing, it’s increasing with women, and again it’s just a case of getting the message out there. It’s making sure that youngsters actually know what trade unions are, that we’re not troublemakers, we’re there to protect you, to watch your back.”

Joanne: “With all these zero-hours contracts, sometimes people aren’t even earning enough to pay union membership. They’re sort of whittling people down. Our membership used to just come out of our wages so we didn’t even think about it.”

Laura: “But they’re taking away people’s safety nets. Social security, you know, and disability allowance and things. We know some people are in terrible states because they don’t have enough to pay their rent. So what do you do? You apply for a rebate, and then you find out you’re not entitled to it anymore. It’s scary. But with the input we’re getting now from young people, I think we’ll get stronger.”

Martha: “Being a woman… they think you’re kinder. My branch secretary calls me his ‘stealth missile’, because they think I’ll be all nice and quiet and agree with everything. And then they think, “Oh – she’s not quite as nice as we thought.” [Smiles]

*These names have been changed.

This post originally appeared on Culture and Capitalism: A Sussex University Anthropology blog, 29 January 2018

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Posted in Anthropology, Economy, Gender

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