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Voices of Scotland Canary in the coalmine: trade unions need to wake up to women’s rights

Research is confirming the massive rise in anti-women politics across the world, writes HAILEY MAXWELL, and if our unions are to fight back, they will need a radical reformation of their institutional culture

MY daily bus commute to work used to take me past the gates of the Royal Infirmary in Glasgow. Relatively often I would see a small group of people standing outside the hospital bearing placards decrying the evils of abortion and the rights of the unborn child.

The spectacle was so roundly pathetic and visibly necrotising in terms of both message and messengers that I wrote off the scene as merely another of Glasgow’s nasty Victorian heirlooms which would expire with the crusade’s last elderly soldiers.

How wrong I was. Less than a decade later, a growing number of anti-abortion protesters regularly host “vigils” outside various medical clinics and hospitals — in particular the maternity ward of the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital and the Sandyford Clinic.

With links to various US Christian organisations, these men and women have been accused of causing upset, fear and disruption for both staff and patients across these sites. Efforts to counter these groups are gaining traction however and last month, the Safe Access Zones Bill completed stage one of its evidence hearing at the Scottish Parliament.

Reproductive rights are the canary in the coalmine and this reinvigoration of the anti-abortion movement should be taken seriously.

While the trade union movement has over the last year organised against far-right groups outside asylum accommodation, we have failed to recognise and respond to these same actors when they have targeted reproductive rights.

Never in my life have I heard so much national conversation about gender — yet the majority of institutions on the left see the oppression of women as matters of polemic, theory or representation rather than heeding what is happening as a warning of dark days to come for all of us. We need less talk and more of a co-ordinated, serious and practical response.

There is a clear and evidenced relationship between the ultra-conservative anti-gender movement and right-wing populist governments across the world. In recent years, women’s rights have tangibly declined across the world — in particular in nations where governments are sliding to the right. We have seen this in Afghanistan, Poland, South Korea, Serbia, Pakistan and in US — where just last week the state of Arizona announced a near-total ban on abortion following the overturning of Roe vs Wade last year.

Recent research by institutions such as the London School of Economics has shown that globally, right-wing governments are emerging out of vicious anti-feminist, anti-black and anti-LGBT movements.

Similarly the European Women’s Lobby, Women Against Violence Europe, and the Resist Project (undertaken by a research consortium of 10 organisations across Europe) have all stated similar findings and expressed deep concern about the growing “anti-gender movement” — a term used frequently used to describe the transnational networks of politicians, writers, think tanks, religious groups and media outlets working to maintain anti-feminist, conservative sex and gender power hierarchies in all areas of social, political, economic, and cultural life — frequently from simultaneously racist standpoints.

Decisions made since the 2008 financial crash have left most nations ill-prepared to weather the ongoing crises of interconnected food, energy and economic crises alongside crises of social reproduction — as populations age and national birthrates fall.

History shows us where states encounter tightening knots of these kinds of problems — politically oppressive, anti-worker, pro-natalist, anti-immigrant policymaking generally follows.

Entrenched job segregation means that women workers are over-represented in care, health and education. Incidentally, these three industrial sectors are currently experiencing acute crises, the impact of which has huge implications for every single person in Scotland.

As all trade unionists at STUC Congress today will be aware — workers in the NHS, in schools and in the care sector, are at breaking point. We also need to bear in mind that these workforces are distinctly gendered and that women workers (as well as racialised workers) are the only thing standing between our access to these services and their total collapse.

As these workers have risen over the past few years post-pandemic to demand better, they have been met with more cuts and suppression of their right to strike. What would a curtailment of these workers’ reproductive rights mean for the future of these industries?

We need these services and that means we need to get behind women workers now more than ever. The trade union movement has made meaningful strides in terms of women’s leadership at the top of institutions but modernisation work is nowhere near done.

We still need to ask — are women — and in particular, young women — treated as equal members in our unions? The answer to this across the trade union movement is not an easy one to stomach — we have enough evidence to know that a radical reformation of institutional culture. We need to keep ensuring we support and develop young women as active members, as reps, in our regional and national committees, and our conference delegations.

But if being activist means at best, filling a ring-fenced equalities role and at worst, running the gauntlet of a continuum of infantilisation and sexual abuse — then trade unions are not viable alternatives to the institutions they seek to reform.

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