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The price of women’s progress?

A seminar on the Charter for Women organised by the National Assembly of Women last weekend has left MEGAN DOBNEY optimistic about plans to increase female political and economic empowerment

THERE are signs that women’s rights, needs and opportunities are going backwards in the labour movement, said Mary Davis at the seminar on the Charter for Women organised by the National Assembly of Women last weekend.

And the Charter can reverse that. How? Because its implementation requires a socialist feminist women’s movement with close links to organised labour.

Quoting the campaign song of Women Against Pit Closures “United by the struggle, United by the past, And it’s — Here we go! Here we go! For the women of the working class,” she said the key thing is to ally our feminist work with the working class.

Feminism is often perceived as to do with identity politics — with glass ceilings where women break through and (often but not always of course) pull up the ladder behind them.

Davis was presenting to the weekend seminar the updated Charter for Women — written in 2002 and launched in 2004 at RMT headquarters in London.

Supported by 27 affiliated bodies (18 of which were national trade unions) the Charter didn’t invent policy, but put it all in one place — to be used by labour movement organisations to highlight their central concerns about women’s position and link the oppression of women across the social, work and labour movement spheres.

What happened? Why isn’t it at the core of the movement today?
Well, as with so many brilliant initiatives, events overtook us. We organised three brilliant conferences and many minor actions.

The TGWU (now part of Unite) was a leader in adopting and adapting the Charter, and other unions and trades councils followed suit.

However, we do believe that the need for the Charter and a strong and vibrant women’s movement is greater today than ever.

The policies of the Tory-Lib Dem government following the international banking crash affected women (and continue to do so) more than on any other group.

Poverty is a political choice

Davis quoted the United Nations rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights Philip Alston, when he said in 2013: “If you got a group of misogynists together in a room and said: ‘How can we make a system that works for men but not women?’ they wouldn’t have come up with too many other ideas than what’s in place.”

So, the things that made us write the Charter for Women in 2002 are now doubly or triply meaningful.

Action, not inaction

And delegates responded with the tales of success that make the difference — the wonderful Unison home care workers in Birmingham who won their strike — even though all the workers are mobile and work in individuals’ homes.

The brilliant ballot results in CWU’s Royal Mail section defending their terms, conditions and national agreement — 97 per cent in favour.

We know that for women the balance between work and home is challenging, but solutions are possible (and not only “men should do more in the home”) — women’s rights are not pie in the sky.

It was perfectly possible during World War II to provide nurseries and childcare for female workers when capitalism demanded it, and national restaurants recognised that the collective provision of food made the work possible for women.

We’re not buying into the need for cuts in social services and know that social provision is possible now.

Forwards or backwards?

“Women’s freedom is a sign of social freedom,” said Ruth Serwotka from Woman’s Place UK. She listed some of the industrial fights led by women, from the matchwomen, the Burston school strike, the Dagenham women, and some of the massive legislative changes won by women’s struggles — supported by men in many cases — such as voting rights, universal child benefit, the Equal Pay Act, the Sex Discrimination Act.

The tangential attack on women’s rights, under the false clothing of a development of the rights of trans people, is emblematic of our interests.

The promotion of gender, an ideological concept, to undermine women’s rights is a cynical manoeuvre designed to set working-class people one against the other.

The key is to develop a women’s movement that engages the next generation — on a collective, not an individual identity, basis.

Women’s voices locally?

Lisa Eldret, leader of the Labour group on Derby Council, focused on the reality of political power locally.

Local authorities have a massive impact on women’s lives with their provision of education, transport, housing and many other vital services.

But only 33 per cent of councillors are women and, worse still, only 20 per cent of council leaders are women.

Councils have lost 60p in the pound, with cuts to local budgets since 2008.

The decisions on cuts have predominantly been made by men with the impact predominantly felt by women — a local description of the national reality…

Although Labour is not in power in Derby it is looking, as are other Labour groups, at the “Preston model” — a procurement approach that relies on bringing together key organisations in the locality and giving preference to spending with local organisations (particularly worker-owned), demanding apprenticeships and so on.

Their model originated in Cleveland in the US, but a similar model is active in Oslo in Norway, with a strong involvement of trade unions and the “fight against labour crime” central, and expressed through a stated opposition to social dumping, and for green procurement strategies, apprenticeships, permanent jobs and commitment to core International Labour Organisation conventions on employment rights.

Speaking out

To achieve progress we have to get our message across. Easier said than done, said Joy Johnson from Unite. But it can be done!

We watched the clarity of the stars — Sikh MP Tam Singh Dhesi speaking out for Muslim women, Marsha de Cordova challenging Esther McVey, Dawn Butler putting Liam Fox in his box, and the wonderful Maya Angelou “still rising.”

Shutting up

The purpose of the seminar was to develop a strategy to promote the Charter. The enjoyment was to spend time with a truly diverse group of women — political and trade union activists and leaders, delegates and individuals — it doesn’t happen often.

The proposals were to develop local groups — not in a formal structural sense, but in an organic and flexible way — drawing in those that exist, whether trade union, party political, feminist, campaign or whatever — all who believe that progress for women demands socialist feminist activity.

We’ll be seeking to influence the Labour Party manifesto with our demand for a ministry for women and equality impact assessments on all policies, and we’ll be looking for a wider conference at the end of this process.

We’re not going to reinvent the wheel — hey ho! It’s there already.

We will draw on existing activism to get a real future for women.

And we know that the price of women’s equality is eternal vigilance.

Megan Dobney is a member of the executive committee of the National Assembly of Women.



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