East of England Junior doctors striking in 2016. Photo: Wikimedia/Roger Blackwell

Lindsey German on International Women’s Day and its crucial links with current trade unionism

It’s a little remarked fact that the majority of trade union members in Britain today are women, and women have been responsible for growth in union membership in recent years.  This is despite the fact that they make up slightly less than half the workforce and are much more likely to be in part time employment (which is much less organised typically) than men. It should come as little surprise to those of us who have been on picket lines in recent months. I joined a fantastic rally of striking east London teachers outside Hackney Town Hall on Thursday which was probably three quarters women. The active participation of women has been true of recent picket lines involving nurses, ambulance workers, university lecturers, and even traditionally more male dominated unions such as rail workers.

We are seeing a rising of women, fed up with years and years of increased pressure at work for less and less reward. The pandemic marked a turning point for many workers, especially on the frontline. And everything that we know about its consequences demonstrates that those already suffering oppression, from ethnic minorities to women, suffered disproportionately. Over the last nine months, successive groups of workers have voted to strike and taken action, often for the first time. But we are still at the beginning of the struggle. As we reach a turning point in the disputes and also celebrate International Women’s Day  this Wednesday 8 March, it is worth considering how we advance the struggles of women and the unions and why it is that inequality persists both in wider society and in the workplace.

Women are among the lowest paid workers. They are far more likely than men to work part time. The occupations with the heaviest concentration of women are also among the worst paid. Where there are more mixed occupations, women tend to be in lower grades. The gender pay gap, despite so much fanfare about its elimination, remains particularly stubborn. While women and men start off their employment with similar rates of pay, this widens as they get older, particularly at the age when women are likely to start to have children. There are many recorded instances of discrimination against women over maternity leave and pregnancy, and many more that we don’t get to hear about.

Sexual harassment and discrimination is also widespread at work. It often involves those in a managerial or other supervisory position against a more junior employee, which brings further levels of coercion into the question.

So there are many reasons for women to join unions. They are more likely to do so in the public sector, and more likely to do so if they are professionals such as teachers, nurses or physios. But one result of this present wave of struggles will be more union membership across the board – and many more women will join. The success of the strikes is vital to this. This big strike wave is above all about pay – the impact of the cost-of-living crisis has been devastating to working class people – but also about worsening working conditions.

The strikes need to deliver on these – which is why the RMT has consistently refused to talk about pay offers which demand major changes in working practices, and why the Unite union this week has rightly refused to call off ambulance workers’ strikes unless there is promise of a serious negotiation around the last year’s pay offer. The government and employers have realised that they cannot win against the unions, given the strength of feeling and widespread public support. So they are trying to divide and rule, offering small improvements while overall imposing real wage cuts and worsening conditions.

As I argued last week, that’s why it’s a mistake to pause the action in exchange for negotiations. As one experienced trade unionist put it, since when was employers agreeing to negotiate a concession? It is normal trade union practice, which employers – at the behest of government – have unilaterally suspended in these strikes. Worse, it is clear that they don’t want these negotiations to reopen the 2022/23 pay offers. Instead there is the vague promise of one-off payments – which do nothing to raise the level of pay on a permanent basis.

The danger is that the union leaders will settle for far less than could have been won, and that those strikers who have shown such bravery and determination will be let down. This isn’t a question of who leads them – it’s true that the top of the trade unions are dominated by a largely male bureaucracy, but there are now a number of major unions with women general secretaries. Rather it is both about politics, with a determination by some to avoid industrial action, and about their position, which all too often leads them towards compromise.

So it’s important that we fight as hard as possible to continue the strikes and to win as much as possible. We also need to build among rank and file workers, because whatever the outcome of this wave of strikes, they will not be the end of the story, but hopefully the beginning of much bigger struggles. Next week, very large numbers of workers, including women, will be on strike on Budget Day, 15 March, in an action which involves teachers, civil servants, doctors, London underground workers and university lecturers.  The strikes and demonstrations on that day will send a message to government, employers, and all the defenders of capital that we have had enough and that we’re not taking it any more.

Looked at more widely, we should also see this upsurge of strikes as the means of beginning to reclaim women’s history. International Women’s Day was launched by socialist women as a result of the inspiring New York shirtwaisters’ strike of 1909-10. The Women’s Liberation Movement in Britain took huge inspiration from working class women’s strikes – the Ford Dagenham women, the London night cleaners, the Fakenham work in and the many equal pay strikes. This new generation is fighting the same fight and is providing its own inspiration.

I hope that the strike wave will also rekindle an interest in wider questions of women’s liberation and help rediscover the socialist origins of International Women’s Day. The day is increasingly marked, if at all, as an academic exercise or business opportunity. This is partly a consequence of the nominal incorporation of women’s issues into the mainstream. But because capitalism cannot allow genuine women’s liberation without destroying the whole basis of its system which relies so heavily on the unpaid (and low paid) labour of women, it reduces problems of oppression to individual issues and refuses to confront the structural inequalities at its heart.

This also involves a systematic downplaying of the economic and social inequality which women face. It’s almost as though this is now almost taken for granted, even by some on the left. One impetus for the Women’s Liberation Movement in the 1960s and 70s was that women felt themselves and their oppression invisible in wider society, even on the left. Socialists need to ensure this doesn’t happen again.

This week: I’m going to try to get a bit more time for writing, reading Ralph Darlington’s new book on the Great Unrest of workers’ struggle before the First World War, and on Saturday going to the important NHS demo in London and speaking on war at the Morning Star conference

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Lindsey German

As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.

Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.