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Women at the heart of the labour movement

In trade unions and in the workplace women play a vital role, says Siobhan Endean.

Labour women's conference takes place in Brighton this weekend.

Unite the union has delegates at the conference who are active trade union and Labour Party members from across the country.

Unite women delegates are workplace reps, union equality reps, health and safety reps, school governors, local councillors, candidates for parliamentary selections and Labour candidates for the next general election.

Women are the majority of trade union members. We are active in our workplaces, in our unions and in our communities in campaigns for gender equality.

We campaign for abortion rights, defending the NHS from privatisation. We campaign against the closures of Sure Start centres and represent people at work who have had their pay cut, hours cut or jobs threatened by the government's austerity programme.

Women members of Unite are part of a collective force of over 400,000 women working in sectors across our economy. We are the economy.

We are the women who work in Sainsbury's and HSBC, we clean the bedrooms in hotels and offices of our MPs, we provide the home support for new mothers, children and vulnerable adults.

We drive cranes, build cars and design engines. We drive the buses to work and keep people safe when they fly on holiday.

We are diverse - we have disabilities, we are black, Asian and all ethnic minorities, we are young women, older women, lesbian, bisexual and trans women.

In the history of our campaigns for women's equality, we are the sewing machinists who went on strike for equal pay at the Ford car plant in Dagenham, we are the women who convinced our unions to vote for all-women shortlists at Labour Party conference and we are the speech and language therapists who took the government to European court for equal pay in the NHS.

We couldn't have achieved those steps towards equality without both the backing of a strong trade union and the political will of a strong Labour government.

We are part of both our trade union and our Labour Party because we have a voice in both.

We are part of a collective, a democratically elected structure of women trade union members.

Over 500 women workplace reps attended our regional women's conferences last year. They elected 300 regional women's committee members and a national women's committee of 30 powerful and politically active women to lead our women's structure.

Unite will have a national women's conference next February where we will set an agenda for women's equality at work that covers the many issues that we as working women still face.

Women in Unite are struggling to make ends meet. We are working in a world where targets are increased once we have met them, we have long working hours of unpaid overtime, perhaps two or three part-time jobs, insecure work and zero-hours contracts.

We suffer from opaque and unfair pay systems which mean we get paid less for doing equal work to men working next to us. When we get pregnant we are likely to be sacked or sidelined, and if we return to work we juggle childcare.

If we are diagnosed with cancer or become disabled then our employers find a way of managing us out of the door, and we have to work longer and longer for a meagre pension that won't cover our basic needs in retirement.

As union reps we still face bullying from employers at work when we stand up for women members facing discrimination.

Our strategy for equality will be global, because capital is global.

Our strategy will be empowering, because women union reps in workplaces need all the power they can get.

Our strategy will be political, because we need stronger equality laws, trade union laws and employment rights to tackle discrimination.

Our strategy will be to organise, to sign up as many women as possible to both the Labour Party and our union, because we know, above all, our strength is in our numbers.

In the discussions on the future of the relationship between the unions and the Labour Party it will help if we can retain an outward-looking focus towards the millions of women who we have yet to reach, to convince them to be part of our movement.

For them, the labour movement needs to be both a strong and collective voice for women.

Siobhan Endean is Unite national officer for equalities.

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