Step Aside, Brother

A stereotypical trade unionist is presented as an older, blue collar, straight, white, able-bodied man. Yet our movement exists to collectively represent and give voice to working people from all backgrounds and walks of life. Over the past forty to fifty years union organised strength has declined in traditionally male occupied manufacturing industries along with those jobs and rapidly grown in the public and service sector where more women are represented.

Underrepresentation in the leadership and structures of our movement remains a serious blight, and as with any blight it should be dug out carefully and eradicated.

As a union, PCS has collective bargaining coverage for a female dominated industrial sector, civil and public services. Over 60% of our members are women. Yet our activist base does not reflect that membership. It is almost a direct reversal. This is true of most unions. Not only are women significantly under represented, black, disabled, LGBT and young members are almost invisible in places, particularly in Scotland. This too is largely the same across all unions and industrial sectors.

While underrepresentation may be reflective of the unequal society in which we live, it is no excuse! Workers deserve better from their movement. If we are serious about strengthening workers’power and organising workers then our structures and our movement must become more reflective of the society we wish for.

Few in the labour and trade union movement disagree. Yet, little changes, because most of the good committed leaders, reps and activists already in position do not think that they have an individual responsibility to act. So let me be more explicit. Step Aside, Brother.

Don’t be alarmed, Brother. Don’t be threatened, Brother. Don’t think you are not valued, or not wanted in our movement, Brother. You know you are.

This is not intend to shock but I make no apologies for addressing directly the men in our movement, particularly those most senior experienced leaders, reps and activists who are deeply committed. Those men that work tirelessly representing members, fighting injustice, inequality and discrimination by the employer. Those men that have been branch secretaries for years, are always delegates, first to sign up to an industrial campaign, hands up first to speak. The men that have made personal sacrifices to win collective gains for the workers they represent. Those men occupying multiple Union positions. Let’s applaud and thank you for your commitment and your achievements. You still have much to do, and much that we can learn from. But let’s also ask you do something really really radical to practice proper leadership and invest in our future. Step Aside Brother.

The ask is not to resign, Jack it in, give up all or step out, Brother. The ask is for you to merely Step Aside, Brother, from just one of your multiple positions to actively mentor an under-represented member into the role. It is not that hard to Step Aside, Brother. Truly it’s not. It will require foresight, genuine commitment, opportunity and timing. Step Aside, Brother is no witchhunt or attempt to cull, disempower or punish good brothers for their privelege. Not at all.

But ask yourself this:

▪️The average union rep holds multiple positions. You get it, branch officer, trades council delegate, sector committee, regional delegate, etc, etc. Is it really necessary or in the best interest of our movement that you hold all these offices?
▪️Is there by stepping aside, someone else you create space for and bring on? Perhaps a woman, black or disabled member, an LGBT member or indeed a young member?
◼️ are there potential leaders, advocates, champions from under represented groups who need a hand up, perhaps encouragement?

Most of the greatest displays of leadership to be witnessed amongst men in our movement are those that already practice what I am preaching. Step Aside, Brother gives recognition to the valiant effort and genuine leadership. True power is present not when you grasp it, hold on to it, but when you give it to someone else.

Earlier this year, two leading male lay reps in PCS that work very close to me inspired me to think about Step Aside, Brother by doing just that. I have no qualms naming them. I have discussed this with them both. John Jamieson, chair of PCS Scottish govt sector committee offered to step aside from meeting with the First Minister to allow a woman to gain experience in this high level delegation. John McInally, stood down as National Vice President to an ordinary NEC place to allow women to come through. Not only is our National President a woman, but now all three VPs too. Crucially, neither John nor John stepped out, they Stepped Aside. They still hold office and influence. Their power lies in their politics, not their position. Their Stepping Aside makes way. We need more men to do this too.

In PCS we have a union advocate role as a route in for many new activists from more diverse backgrounds. Other unions call this different things. If we are successful in recruiting under represented groups to these roles, then we hope they succeed to full rep positions over time. Step Aside, Brother however is about making a conscious and deeply political choice to accelerate that journey.

This is early in my year as VP of the STUC, but I have began using various platforms to extend the Step Aside, Brother message. So far, it is received with great interest from leading sisters in many different unions. Some of whom say to me that it has inspired them to think about how they could give up a position to mentor someone through. That’s great, but it is not sisters we need to make a concerted effort to step aside. Think about it.


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