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Take pride building on women's heroic past

We need to defend what the labour movement has achieved for women, writes Ann Henderson

Earlier this month a memorial plaque to commemorate Jane Rae was unveiled in the gardens of Clydebank Town Hall. Rae was a community activist and former councillor in Clydebank.

Having been centrally involved in the strike at the Singer sewing machine factory in 1911, she was sacked.

She joined the Independent Labour Party in 1913 and later became a councillor.

Active in the rent strikes, the Suffragette movement, the anti-war movement and in her local community, Rae ensured resources were directed to mother-and-child clinics, to schools and into the local area.

Last year the Clydebank Women's History Group, working with Glasgow Women's Library, unearthed more information about this remarkable woman.

The celebration on that sunny afternoon in September in Clydebank, in a lovely garden on the site of the former municipal washhouse and mother-and-child clinic, reminded us of the legacy for which we have a responsibility today.

Many women, seldom recognised in the history books, championed equality and social justice.

In Glasgow there is a growing local campaign for a memorial statue to mark the great contribution made by Mary Barbour, Labour's first female councillor in Glasgow.

Barbour was a leading voice in the Glasgow rent strikes during the first world war.

These rent strikes changed the law, introducing some controls on the private rented sector, and stopping many of the evictions that had forced families out of their homes.

Around Scotland and across Britain work is being done to name these women and to build on those struggles with pride.

With the membership of trade unions reflecting the rise in the proportion of women in the workforce, we can see more women active as shop stewards and as trade union officials at every level.

The STUC general council, following the adoption of a form of quotas in the early 1990s, currently has more women than men among its membership.

The STUC president alternates between a man and a woman, and last year Agnes Tolmie of Unite, employed in the finance sector, held that post.

Last week at TUC Congress she received the TUC women's gold badge recognising her contribution to fighting to improve women's working conditions.

With Frances O'Grady as TUC general secretary, and the many other women we heard speaking up at TUC Congress, there is far more opportunity to hear first hand of the inequality and injustice currently faced in our workplaces and communities.

It has never been more important that labour movement women are at the centre of making policies for the future. Despite all the evidence that austerity is disproportionately affecting women - including from the Fawcett Society, the House of Commons research library and the recent Scottish government-commissioned report on gender and welfare reform - the coalition government proceeds with public spending cuts and further attacks on our living standards.

Zero-hour contracts are on the rise, recently becoming the focus for political comment from across all parties.

Many working women will themselves have had experience of these terrible contractual arrangements.

However, this is only one aspect of the far wider casualisation of the labour market.

Workers are isolated, high unemployment and stringent benefit tests are removing the basic levels of support that should be available through social security provision and the cost of living is rising.

Agency workers, removal of shift payment allowances, performance management, unachievable productivity targets, all combine to make the experience of work very difficult for much of the workforce.

Defending collective bargaining rights is crucial in the coming period.

The coalition government knows this, and we have seen numerous attacks already through the "Red Tape Challenge" and the deregulation of the labour market.

Recent changes in access to justice through the employment tribunal system, with the introduction of charges which will effectively discourage and bar many workers and their trade unions from seeking redress from their employers, are only one example.

Again, we expect these changes to disproportionately affect women, for instance through a reduction in the cases coming forward on maternity-related unfair dismissal cases.

The latest legislative assault at British level is the Lobbying Bill. Not only will it remove the voices of trade unionists, working women and men, from the political space opened up during general election campaigns but it proposes extensive and unworkable requirements on the data that is held by trade unions on their own memberships, which will make it practically impossible to conduct legal ballots, and effectively impose further costs on trade unions.

This is in parallel to the knowledge we have about the fragmented labour market, the difficulties in identifying workplaces and organising workers.

And, having already legislated to remove any requirement for reasonable public consultation periods on any proposed legislation, this is being rushed through Parliament by the government.

Women's voices, both in the trade union movement and in the political arena, must be at the heart of the campaigns on these issues.

Trade union women will continue to lead the campaigns on childcare policies, on women's health at work, on women's representation and on violence against women, and progressive policies on all these are vital for the future too.

But we also will be speaking up against the attacks on trade union and employment rights, so central to our ability to effectively represent our members. All this is the legacy we are proud to defend.

Ann Henderson is assistant secretary of the STUC (www.stuc.org.uk/women Twitter @stucwomen).

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