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The GMB report on institutional sexism — why we must change

If lessons are to be learned and effective action taken to address the serious issues of bullying, sexual harassment and cronyism highlighted in the recently published GMB report it must be recognised these problems exist not just in one union but across the entire labour and trade union movement, writes HELEN O'CONNOR

MANY keyboard commentators will have itchy fingers poised to express outrage but a key point should not be missed – no matter how uncomfortable and even traumatic this is, GMB is actually taking steps to deal with the problem.

There are specific historic foundations underpinning the macho culture of trade unions particularly in unions that formerly represented almost exclusively male industrial workers. 

But a number of unions, traditionally male preserves, increasingly represent women workers. GMB’s membership is now over 50 per cent women. It is high time for fundamental change in our culture and practices that genuinely enable the very best and most talented women to rise up the ranks of the trade union movement.

As a woman in the trade union movement I have experienced misogynistic harassment, not in GMB, but in a previous union when I was a lay rep. 

And although the way I was treated was outwardly expressed in terms of misogyny and harassment, the core issue was not because of my gender but because of my commitment for fighting for members’ interests. 

When I sought to organise mainly female NHS members to resist cutbacks to terms and conditions I was treated as a disruptive troublemaker by both the employer and that union’s full-time officers. 

I learned a sharp lesson that I have not forgotten. Though I am now a full-time officer myself I still recognise that  full-time officers who oppose reps organising and leading members against workplace injustice are themselves the problem.

One of the strongest and most important parts of the GMB report is how it addresses democracy in the union. The report calls for lay reps to exert their power in the interests of members. 

It is absolutely correct that the democratically elected lay reps must assert themselves in ensuring members’ interests are promoted and defended by implementing conference policies.

The struggle for equality and respect cannot be separated from the wider class struggle. 

We should not fall into the trap of thinking the problems exposed in the GMB report will be resolved simply by implementing effective HR procedures or appointing equality officers – both of which are of course, absolutely necessary. 

We will not address deeply rooted problems by tokenism. Platitudes about “empowerment” will not do – real empowerment for women in our movement can only come from a real understanding of the root causes of discrimination and ensuring women have a real voice in every part of the union’s activity and structures. 

Discrimination is inextricably linked to the conditions that workers face in their workplaces and in their daily lives. This means that trade unions need to ensure the widest possible debate and democracy in our organisations. And this links to the priority of organising to fight for members’ interests in the workplace. 

What do we mean by that? For example, over a 40-year period the main aim of employers and right-wing governments has been to cut public services and outsource them. 

This impacts negatively on all workers but especially so on women, not just on workplace terms and conditions but also in our daily lives as we are forced to work harder to deal with the gaps left by the destruction of those services. Cuts and privatisation are part of a worldwide offensive on women’s rights and an integral part of this reactionary process.

During the pandemic care workers and nurses, most of who are women, were essentially told: “We are not interested in your opinion or your grievances, shut your mouth, behave like the angels we say you are and don’t rock the boat.” 

Discrimination is not just a moral issue, it is a class issue, and that is why dealing with discrimination cannot be restricted to legal and procedural initiatives alone. 

Every cleaner, every catering assistant, every nurse, every teaching assistant is a potential trade union leader with talent and abilities that can be brought out and developed through union activity. There are many working women who have the ability to become union organisers and who can lead workers into disputes and win them with the collective strength of their members behind them. 

Opportunities must be opened up for women in the movement as a matter of priority. With the correct support union women can excel and we are perfectly capable of planning and implementing industrial and political strategies to defeat the cuts and privatisation that are causing so much harm to ourselves and our children. 

Women must seize every opportunity to educate ourselves, develop ourselves, step up and lead the struggle against our own oppression with the clear objective of advancing the interests of our members and our class. 

The lessons to be learnt from this report should be a catalyst for the type of change within GMB and across the movement that will be to the benefit of everyone. I know there are many great women within GMB  and following this report I believe the basis is there for my union to go forward into the future with confidence, with energy and with the determination not only to get our own house in order but be a shining example to the labour and the trade union movement as a whole.

Helen O’Connor is GMB Southern Region organiser.

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