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Laurie Penny: Don’t judge Catholics by the Pope

Despite evidence to the contrary, there are still people doing beautiful things in the name of religion.

Britons, beware. As the nation prepares for the Pope's visit, Catholic dissidents are making trouble in the countryside again.

On 6 August, one priest and two lay worshippers crept up to the perimeter of the Aldermaston nuclear weapons base and cut a hole in the fence, attaching a sign on the new doorway bearing the legend "Open for Disarmament: All Welcome". The three then knelt down inside the base and prayed.

In statement following the protest, the demonstrators, two of whom had previously served prison sentences for anti-nuclear action, said: "We come inspired by the message of Jesus to love our enemies, to be peacemakers and to act non-violently at all times." Parents, lock up your children: the fundamentalists are coming.

In a world where organised religion is very often a cipher for co-ordinated homophobia, misogyny and dogmatic social control, it's good to know that people can still do brave and beautiful things in the name of faith. These are the sorts of Catholics we should be inviting to speak around the country -- not former card-carrying fascists with personal responsibility for covering up institutional child abuse, opposing sexual health initiatives and promoting discrimination against women and homosexuals across the world.

This story gave me pause for thought, as I'm working on a longer article about anti-Catholicism and why the snowballing Protest The Pope movement has little to do with the Catholic faith itself, but everything to do with the barbaric, anti-humanist dogma peddled by members of the Catholic hierarchy.

Of course, like any arbitrary belief system, the faith can also be bloody silly. As a heathen unbeliever from a lapsed Maltese Catholic family, I am still mystified why some of my relatives regularly attend mass hallucination parties where everyone pretends that bits of wafer blessed by a celibate in a robe are magically transformed on the tongue into gruesome chunks of dead prophet.

On the other hand, I've got secular friends who believe that the Horrors are a good band, or that the Liberal Democrats are a party of the left. Judge not, lest ye be judged.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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Our trade unions are doing more for women than ever before

You don’t have to look far to find examples of unions not just “noisily fighting for”, but actually winning better pay, terms and conditions for women.

Reading Carole Easton’s article on women and unions was puzzling and disappointing in equal measure. Puzzling because it paints a picture of trade unions which bears little resemblance to the movement I know and love. Disappointing because it presents a false image of trade unions to women readers just at a time when women need strong trade unions more than ever.

While it is right to say that too little progress has been made in closing the gender pay gap or tackling the scourge of zero hour contracts, it is wrong to suggest that trade unions have been twiddling their thumbs.

Like our friends at the Young Women’s Trust, equality is at the heart of what unions do. This work isn’t measured in the number of high-profile women we have at the forefront of our movement – although we’re not doing too badly there, as anyone will attest who has seen Frances O’Grady, the first female general secretary of the TUC, speaking out for ordinary women workers.  

Trade unions contribute to equality for our 3 million women members every day. For us, that’s about the thousands of workplace reps supporting individual women facing discrimination or harassment. It’s about health and safety reps negotiating for protective clothing and better workplace policies on the menopause, terminal illness and many more issues. Our work is unions taking employment tribunal cases on behalf of women who could never afford the tribunal fees without us. And always, at the heart of everything, our work is about the collective power of workers joining together to bargain for fair pay and decent work.

You don’t have to look far to find examples of unions not just “noisily fighting for”, but actually winning better pay, terms and conditions for women. Several unions have successfully organised cleaners, supported them to take strike action for better pay, and won. The RMT is just one example of many. Unite is busy organising London’s low-paid and often exploited hotel workers. Unison organises teaching assistants, fights for better pay and conditions, and even runs a Skills for Schools project to help TAs develop in their careers. Unison and the National Union of Teachers – both unions with over 75% female membership – organise childcare workers and fight not just for better pay but also for training and development opportunities. Over in the retail sector, Usdaw and GMB are fighting the good fight for their women members in supermarkets and shops, not just on pay but on pensions, health and safety, carers’ leave and protection from violence at work.

Women have much to gain from trade union membership. Male union members are paid 7.8 per cent more than men who aren’t in a union – but women union members are paid 30 per cent more than non-members. A recent EHRC report on pregnancy discrimination found that employers who recognised unions were less likely to discriminate against their pregnant employees.

Yes, it’s true that too few young women are union members. This summer, the TUC and our member unions will launch a new organising and campaigning effort to spread the benefits of union membership and attract a new generation of women (and men).

But starting new women-only unions is no form of progress. That’s where we started out over 100 years ago. Now women workers are at the heart of all our unions, across all sectors. Women’s concerns at work are trade union concerns. And every day we make practical progress towards women’s equality at work through patient representation and negotiation and active campaigning to challenge bad bosses. Young Women’s Trust should work with us to get more women the benefit of union membership.  

Scarlet Harris is women's equality policy officer at the TUC