This week we celebrate the 150th birthday of the Trades Union Congress (TUC), the first coming together in 1868 of trade unionists from all over the UK at the Manchester Mechanics Institute to form the annual Congress that we hold to still. At that time women made up around 10% of union membership.
Women have always played a significant role in the workforce though. From agricultural labour to the jute mills of Dundee, in factories and works, women have also been natural leaders at work. Women’s war effort on the two world wars is well documented. We know of the women munitions workers, engineers, communications, transport and infrastructural workers and land girls. We were taught that women were expected to give up their skills and shelf their abilities when the men returned from war.
Unionised labour is stereotyped as male blue collar heavy industry workers. How things have changed in reality. Today more people work in call centres than ever worked in shipyards. Nowadays women make up half the workforce and the majority of union members. In public services, where women’s jobs are concentrated at the lowest paid, trade union membership is now the strongest and most militant.
Of course, working class women have always worked, always been breadwinners and showed leadership in linking their working lives to their communities and family networks. Women today still organise shared childcare and mutual support in their communities, run the ménages, Christmas clubs and are the lifeblood of our workforce. Women speak up for other workers and challenge poor treatment of others in work, home and wider social life.
With such presence in the workplace and with in France’s O’Grady, as TUC general secretary, extensive equality legislation and visibility of women in some boardrooms, some say the struggle for trade union and workplace equality is over. Sadly not.
At the beginning, it took 20 years and a lot of resistance before the TUC agreed in 1888 to support the call for equal pay between men and women. And then another 80 years further before women workers at Ford’s car plant in Dagenham went on strike and famously won equal pay for machinists, triggering the first change in the law. Today, a further 50 years on from the Equal Pay Act, women council workers in Glasgow City fight on to realise their right to equal pay for work of equal value.
Our cultural obsession with celebrity watching means we know more about the huge pay disparities between broadcast celebrities at the BBC than we do about the low paid council workers in Glasgow City who have been fighting for equal pay for over a decade. But this is all part of the same problem of undervaluing women’s work.
It is the same with sexual harassment. Of course it is incredibly brave of the famous actors that have called out Harvey Weinstein, and parliamentary researchers exposing power abuse from male MPs, other sexual predators and harassers in powerful positions in the public eye. The resulting Me Too social media campaign has exposed what every woman worker already knows, sexual harassment at work is so widespread that it is institutionalised and normalised so that a woman feels that she cannot speak out, be believed and that she will be penalised, ostracised or worse if she does.
Here is the thing, just like with equal pay, we already have robust bullying and sexual harassment codes, dignity and respect workplace expectations and even law. It is attitudes, culture and belief that needs to be changed.
However far we have come in the first 150 years, we have much further to go to ensue that women and men are truely equal in their work, in their unions and in their homes.
Women workers learn from the experience of their mothers to fight alongside their sisters and pass on to their daughters that we only win when we come together and stick together. And when we do win, we win for a better life for all – men and women alike.