Women workers fighting back
The majority of working-class women today are workers,
but they have not simply become like male workers.
There are differences between women's work and men's that affect their experience, their consciousness and their struggles.
Two out of every five women workers are part-time (including two out of every three who have children under sixteen). Part-timers have fewer legal rights--redundancy, sick pay, notice, maternity leave and so on--and are paid less by the hour than full-timers doing the same job.
Cuts in public services such as school meals, hospitals, nurseries and nursery classes make it even more difficult for many
women to take and keep a full-time job. Sickness in the family, a patient who should still be in hospital being sent home to
recover, or the collapse of makeshift childminding arrangements--all these can mean loss of earnings or even the sack for a
Most women are in a worse bargaining position than men. Large numbers of women work for small firms with a high turnover
of labour. Most of the skills that women have--such as typing, sewing or cooking--are not scarce skills, so are not paid as
skilled work. Because there are always at any one time large numbers of women moving back into the labour force after a
break for having children or other reasons, there is a 'reserve army of labour' keeping women's wages low.
Men's weekly earnings are on average 56 per cent higher than women's, and this rises to 67 per cent in manufacturing industry.
These figures include overtime and shift pay, which men get more of than women, but even women's hourly earnings are less
than 75 per cent of men's, and the proportion has been going down since 1977.
What all this adds up to is that while women have especially good reasons to get together and fight for themselves at work, they
face special difficulties in doing so.
Women can organise and fight back at work. Two-thirds of all new trade union members in the past twenty years have been
women, and although women workers are still less fully unionised than men, union organisation is now normal in many fields of
women's work where it was virtually unheard of twenty years ago, such as hospitals and offices.
Women were very much part of the rise in working-class militancy in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The Ford's sewing
machinists struck in 1968 for upgrading of their skill, and won a substantial wage increase though they are still, in 1984, fighting
for the principle of upgrading. In 1970, twenty thousand clothing workers went on strike in Leeds, reinventing the flying picket
shortly before miners and building workers picked up the idea. Up to 1977, there were equal pay strikes in hundreds of
Women fought employers and governments; they fought racism (at Imperial Typewriters in Leicester, for example), and they
fought male workers who tried to obstruct them. They occupied factories, such as the Fakenham shoe factory in Norfolk in
1969, when factory occupations were almost unheard of in Britain.
Even in the 1980s, when it is harder to fight because of the economic recession and anti-trade union legislation, women have
been prominent in the struggles that have taken place: the Lee Jeans occupation at Greenock and the Liverpool typists' strike of
1981, the civil servants' and hospital workers' disputes of 1982, and so on.
Though women and men have often stood together in strikes, women have also often had to raise the question of their collective
relationship to men workers in the same workplace. In many of the equal pay strikes of the 1970s, for example, men were
unwilling to support the women's demands; but if the women could convince the men and get their support, they were more
likely to win (see the pamphlet by Anna Paczuska, Sisters and Workers, published in 1980). Clearly, it is better to try to
convince the men that a victory for women is in the interests of all; that the women's struggle is against the employer, against
whom all workers have common cause, but if men workers insist on sticking to their differentials, then women trade unionists
will have to fight them.
The way to fight back at work has to be through the trade unions. But it has to be said that the unions have often failed to do
much for women. They are mostly run by men, even when they have a majority of women members, and they often don't take
women's needs seriously.
The way to make trade unions a better weapon--and this goes for men as well as women--is by rank and file organisation. The
strength of a union depends on how well its members support each other in the struggle, not on who is leader or how
well-trained its officials are. All leaders and officials should be elected by the membership and easily recalled by them, from
shop stewards to general secretaries.
The trouble with most trade union leaders today is not that they are men (though most of them are), but that they are remote
from their members' concerns. Women officials are just as capable of becoming remote from their members and selling them
out as men. The new woman president of the printworkers' union SOGAT in 1984, for example, was getting Fleet Street
clerical members (most of them women) to back down from a long-standing dispute within a few weeks of taking office.
The way branches and meetings are run in many unions is offputting to most women: not because they are run by men--in fact,
the majority of men members are clearly put off as well, to judge by low attendances. While there must be some rules for the
conduct of meetings, otherwise the person with the loudest voice and strongest personality will dominate everything, the aim
should be to encourage participation, not prevent it.
Instead, many trade union meetings are conducted so as to prevent too many members from talking or raising awkward
problems. This is not because there is a man in the chair, but because he is usually a particular kind of man (backed up by his
mates the branch secretary and treasurer, and egged on by the district official), the kind who don't want action or trouble, but a
quiet life and a long service medal when they retire.
Shop stewards and other workplace representatives who want 'respect' from management, plenty of facility time, and perhaps
the convenor's office next door to Personnel, don't want to fight for their members but to smooth things over by negotiation.
They often dread shop floor or section meetings more than they do interviews with management, because it is harder to satisfy
their members than to agree with the powers that be.
Unfortunately, this is what trade unionism has come to mean for many people today: getting union positions for the status they
bring, becoming skilled at persuading people to give up their grievances for a compromise, and attending conferences and
committees where 'big' decisions are made. Some women argue that women need to play this game in competition with
men--to get more women officials appointed, more women leaders at the top, more women delegates to committees and
It is not that these are bad things in themselves, but that they are useless while the unions are bureaucratically run from above.
Getting women on to union executives by reserving places for them, or appointing women as district officials, is only removing
the most active women from day-to-day contact with workplace members and so making them less effective in terms of any
real fight back.
Many male trade unionists have reactionary ideas about women. For example, they may call for women to be sacked first if
there are to be redundancies. This is not only an attack on women--the vast majority need their jobs just as much as men, and
their families depend on them, too but an admission of weakness in refusing to challenge the need for redundancies at all and in
trying to shift the burden onto someone else instead.
These ideas are not going to be changed by a high-handed union official, or even by a conference resolution, but by women
union members constantly organising, arguing and showing their strength. Changing ideas this way is, of course, a longer and
harder job than winning an election or canvassing conference votes, but it is what trade unionism really should mean.
The most important thing about women's trade union struggles is that they should aim to strengthen trade unionism as well as
fighting men's reactionary ideas, not weaken it. So feminists who wanted to see the Thatcher government break the NGA print
union in 1983 because it is a male-dominated union were undermining the trade union rights that enable other women to fight
back too. A defeat for the NGA set all trade unions back.
This is not to underestimate the problems of an industry such as the print, where the newspaper proprietors have been trying to
use new technology and cheaper female labour to break the power of the unions, and union members have become even more
anti-women as a result. But it is just not on for women to ally with the bosses, still less with the Tories and their anti-union
legislation, because they are weakening themselves by doing it.
In the USA, under the Positive Action Programme, women have gained access to many skilled jobs from which they were
previously excluded, by allying with the state, through compulsory arbitration, to impose these concessions on the unions. As a
result, many of the unions are still hostile to the women who have entered these jobs (for example in the mining industry), and
the women may still suffer from poorer pay and conditions than the men. Overall, such Positive Action has made little difference
in the USA: 80 per cent of women workers are still in 'women's jobs' in clerical, service, sales and manufacturing firms, and in
1982 women's average earnings were still only 62 per cent of men's (worse even than in Britain).
But Positive Action has also come to mean getting women into management posts rather than skilled jobs. As noted before, the
number of women in white collar and lower grade professional work has expanded while the managerial hierarchy remains
predominantly male, and seeing well-qualified women passed over for promotion can often rouse women to protest.
Being bossed around by men is certainly something women should fight against, but do we want to be bossed around by other
By Norath Carlin, Socialist Workers Party, UK
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