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Women’s issues are trade union issues

HELEN O’CONNOR sees a worrying trend of women exiting the labour movement in their thousands, and warns that if this tide is not stemmed with proper and effective action, it will only be to the benefit of the capitalist class

ACCORDING to government statistics trade union membership grew in 2023 by 89,000 but 83,000 women left the same year. 

This is on top of 129,000 women (mainly private sector) leaving the unions in 2022. The exodus of women in a period when trade unions are growing must be openly discussed, if trade unions are to be at the forefront of building power and influence and advancing the interests of the working class.

Women are 52 per cent of the population, so this exodus of women from the trade unions, the largest democratic organisations of the working class, leaves a question mark over whether women believe unions are relevant to them. 

Are trade unions effectively tackling the systemic misogyny within our structures, in the workplace and in wider society? Government figures would suggest that unions are failing women. We need to fix this as a matter of urgency.

Throughout history women have played key roles in the most militant trade union struggles. From the Dublin Jacobs biscuit factory walkout, led by Rosie Hackett in 1911, to the strikes against Ford in Dagenham that changed legislation on equal pay. Women have been organising in trade unions since their formation.

The Tories try to position themselves as the champions of women’s rights but their brutal cuts and privatisation agenda has itself represented the biggest attack on women in our day-to-day lives.

In this period of reaction, women’s sex-based rights are under the most ferocious attack, alongside cuts to jobs, terms, conditions and public services. It is women who suffer most under a political agenda that advances cuts and privatisation and that puts profits before people. 

Women occupy the lowest-paid job roles in the economy and tend to work part-time to care for children so as a result they are more reliant on an ever-shrinking welfare state. Zero-hours contracts, wage theft and extremely low pay is the lived experience of too many working-class women. Many are forced to work extra hours to make ends meet or end up with zero pay in order to meet the crippling costs of child care. Affordable social housing is no longer an option either, so mothers in particular end up trapped, disadvantaged and unable to escape a cycle of poverty or economic dependence on unsuitable men.

Rape convictions are at an all-time low and life-saving domestic abuse services are being shut or privatised out of existence as women and girls face rising levels of violence. The hollowing out of public-sector provision is further undermining the fundamental rights of women to assert our boundaries, to speak up, to demand safety from sexual and physical violence and to protect our children.

The political and economic attacks on women and the deliberate silencing of women goes hand in hand with attacks on the right to protest and the new raft of anti-trade union legislation that has been introduced. They want women and men to be utterly demoralised and disempowered, to stay in our place, shut up, and to give up organising ourselves in unions to fight against cuts and privatisation. After all, it can only be of benefit to the capitalist class if half the working class leave the trade unions in droves, are driven out or mistrust unions to the point that they don’t even want to get involved in the first place. 

The global attack on women’s rights is being framed as “culture wars” by those who are unable to recognise that the deep divisions being sown between working-class men and women undermines class struggle. 

It has always been understood across the trade unions and the left that equality for women is inextricably linked to class struggle but that level of understanding is being broken down by gibberish produced by the likes of Judith Butler and other modern-day sophists. The shallow analysis of identity politics is not sufficient to enable the working class to identify the true source of our oppression, arm us with the knowledge or the methods to mount an effective and united political and industrial struggle.

The fight for equality must be real and meaningful and the demands of women clearly defined within the political and industrial equality agenda. 

Sexual harassment and rape are women’s issues. Domestic violence predominantly affects women and has an impact that lasts through generations. Hard work, grinding poverty and insecure contracts are the lot of too many women, who are increasingly the main breadwinners for the family. 

The sex industry readily opens its doors to impoverished women who then end up being further exploited. That prostitution is now reframed as “liberating” and as “a legitimate form of work” tells us everything we need to know about the levels of misogyny that is deeply embedded in our movement.

Women need decent publicly owned and provided services, a welfare state that provides a genuine safety net and well-paid, unionised jobs, We also need to see progress in the laws around rape, flexible working and other issues that predominantly affect women. Women with children require unions to make more effort to lower the barriers to enable them to be fully involved. 

These are the very basics of a core understanding of women and the particular issues we face and women’s demands must be put at the very core of the class struggle so that we can all succeed together.

Helen O’Connor is a GMB organiser writing in a personal capacity.


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