WOMEN WORKERS & THE TRADE UNIONS
Lawrence and Wishart
This is a revised version of a book originally written in 1980 and which now covers from the 1830s to 2010.
Sarah Burton reveals that at the advent of industrialisation much of the workforce, particularly within textiles, were women who, like those to come, were lowly paid, worked long hours and were more highly exploited than men.
It was a situation which trade unions, dominated by skilled tradesmen from the beginning, wouldn’t challenge and even supported for decades. Unsurprisingly, therefore, that when women became active trade unionists many formed separate organisations.
When struggling to improve pay and conditions some women workers took successful strike action such as the Matchwomen in 1888 (1) and then in 1910 the Cradley Heath Chainmakers, (2) who were led by Mary Macarthur, who denounced the lowly status and the lack of a living wage for women.
Women, backed by some male trade unionists, began campaigning across the labour movement for equal pay. The book contains numerous examples of where even when the principle was won it was not acted upon by unions during negotiations with employers.
The status quo was smashed in 1968 by a strike by women sewing machinists within the TGWU, one of Unite's predecessor union’s, that brought Fords Dagenham to a standstill. (3) Not only did the women win recognition to skilled status but they also heralded in the 1970 Equal Pay Act before later achieving a regrading that established they did work of equal value to their male colleagues and should be paid accordingly. This provided the opportunity for many other women to have their jobs regraded upwards.
Equal pay was important. Achieving it though required equal opportunities in training and education, paid maternity leave and child-care facilities. The response of many unions was, at best, lukewarm.
Women trade unionists then combined with the Women's Liberation Movement. Together they pushed unions into campaigning for better pay for cleaners, Meanwhile, an important survey by the Association of Cinematograph Television and Allied Technicians (ACTT) confirmed that despite the ACTT’s historical commitment to equality, women remained firmly rooted in the lower grades of the industry where the union was organised.
The ACTT 1973 conference instructed the union to tackle discriminatory practices with employers and appoint an officer to investigate and recommend action against discrimination. New initiatives encouraged more women to participate right across the union. It was a radical, encouraging development. It pushed other unions to draw up a set of broadened objectives for its women members that included health matters, sexual harassment and women’s portrayal in the media.
There was then good news. A survey revealed that between 1970 and 1976 there had been a fall in the gap between men and women’s gross hourly earnings such that women’s pay now averaged 74% of men’s. Women’s employment had also risen.
These gains though were lost over the following decade. The Conservative government, elected in 1979, adopted a harsh economic strategy in which “unemployment was a price worth paying.” The public sector, where many women worked, was attacked and maternity rights were also chipped away at. Women workers again fought back. There were nationwide nurses strikes in 1982, successful opposition against plans to weaken the Abortion Act and there was a continuous stream of TUC reports and statements on many women’s issues.
By the time New Labour was elected in 1997 major legal restrictions had been imposed on the trade union movement. The economy too had changed dramatically as the UK’s manufacturing base had been wrecked. With this came the decline in male employment that slashed trade union membership from 12.6 million to 7.0 million between 1979 and 1997.
Writing in the T&G Record in 1996, Margaret Prosser, the TUC President that year, recognised that where there was new employment opportunities these were mainly for part-time women workers in small firms. For unions to survive they must “become female or we will become fringe.” Even in unions who agreed with Prosser, a solution was difficult as it required massive changes to organisations that had been male-dominated for decades. Yet unless women were at the table when union policy was being negotiated then why join a union?
Burton ends her book by examining the period from 1997 to 2010. Aside from the welcome introduction of the national minimum wage, New Labour continued with the Tories policies including privatising public services and restricting trade unions’ legal rights.
Women trade unionists reacted by undertaking campaigns, negotiating and litigating over the gender pay gap. Within the public sector, trade unions fought continuous - often successful - battles, especially within the NHS and local authorities, to win women a fairer deal under the 1997 single status agreement. There was also some success by unions negotiating under Agenda for Change, which was aimed at harmonising basic service conditions on pay and working hours for NHS employees.
However, within the private sector the difficulties faced by trade unions in recruiting new members allowed employers to widen the gender gap. Many women remained segregated in a limited range of jobs, making it easier for employers to pay them less. Strikes over pay and conditions by mainly Asian women workers within the TGWU at Gate Gourmet and Lufthansa Skychef Catering Company were long running and courageous but failed to provide a satisfactory outcome. More pleasingly, there were bargaining successes on flexible working conditions for working parents and carers, which benefitted many women.
Burton’s book closes with an analysis of the trade unions, which despite now consisting of more women members than men still has too few women integrated at all levels of the movement. Burton contends that if unions are to successfully challenge inequality at work and in society they must eradicate inequality in their own organisations.
Burton ends this highly readable, informative book by praising the many women who over the years have spoken out to assert the needs of women workers.
1. Louise Raw: STRIKING A LIGHT - The Bryant and May Matchwomen and their place in History
2. For more on the Cradley Heath Chainmakers go to:-