Legislation is currently passing through parliament that amounts to one of the worst attacks on working women in a generation. The Trade Union Bill, at third reading stage this week, will deliberately curtail the ability of any worker to fight for equal pay, fair treatment and against discrimination and harassment. It could move the cause of women’s rights back decades.
Large parts of it apply to everyone – heavily policed pickets, strikes being broken by hiring agency staff, and attacks on union finances, both political and otherwise. But the nastiest legislation is reserved for those working in “important” public services. Workers in these sectors will see the ways they pay union fees stopped. The time they can spend negotiating with employers will be restricted. And to go on strike they will have to achieve levels of votes far above the level received by most governments.
TUC data reveals that almost three quarters of the union members affected by those most oppressive rules are women.
This is because public services are largely made up of women. BIS figures show they make up 67 per cent of public sector workers, 79 per cent of healthcare workers and 72 per cent of education workers. For those women, with strikes made less likely and less powerful, their leverage to prevent unequal pay, discrimination and protect maternity and other rights will be dramatically reduced. Restrictions on “facility time” – that which union reps use for negotiation to solve such problems before they turn into industrial action – will mean that even “be reasonable” chats with misguided managers will become far more difficult to have.
Even for those women not working in public services, it’s not much better. Discrimination is still rife across sectors, and TUC figures show significant differences between unionised and non-unionised workplaces, Where unions are strong and present, employers are more likely to give flexible parental leave, produce equal pay audits and take steps to raise the wages of their lowest paid staff, often women. If a woman needs to bring legal action against her employer, she will likely only be able to do so with financial help from her union: something now being put at risk due to the parts of the bill dealing with union finances.
Outside of the workplace, unions have been at the forefront of women’s rights for over a century: the women’s unions who supported the suffragettes, the post war unions who recruited millions of newly working women, the Dagenham strikers who changed the law on equal pay, the lobbiers and campaigners who have pressed for policies like flexible working and shared parental leave, and countless union activists who have volunteered with or donated to feminist marches, festivals, or pro-choice campaigns, all using the political funds now likely to be smashed by the Bill. An attack on unions is inarguably an attack on gender equality.
The government is meant to consider things like this when passing new law, and they claim to have. But their Equality Analysis of the bill is a doublespeak shambles. It reads like a CCHQ press release. It takes no account of the significant role of trade unions in promoting workplace or societal equality. It presents data showing that majority of people affected will be female, but concludes “since the changes being brought into effect by the Bill measures are not adverse to [anyone] there are therefore no adverse effects on women.”
The “changes”, they suggest, actually benefit the whole country, especially users of the public services who will be less inconvenienced by strike action. They conveniently forget to mention why those strikes are likely to happen: austerity measures and cuts to services which impact service users as well as workers. Guess which gender is most likely to be those users? You got it. Without unions to help fight the austerity and privatisation decimating those organisations they will be lost, reduced to debris, and women will be heavily impacted as a result. What’s more, as women of colour are the most impacted of all women by austerity, the bill isn’t just sexist. It’s racist too.
Gender equality is only one of the reasons this bill needs to be fought, but it’s one of the largest.
Large numbers of people will assert that it’s the feminist movement who need to get active around this agenda and move it. This is partially true, but also shifts responsibility to the wrong place. Despite unions’ own data showing the bill hits women hugely disproportionately very little of the campaigning which has happened so far has tackled it from this angle.
If the union movement is to defeat these laws – and the bill in all likelihood will become law – this has to change. No more rallies with speakers comprising largely of middle-aged, white male General Secretaries. No more meetings held at times and in places which make it difficult for working mums to attend. No more male comrades finding it easier to envision a General Strike than to listen to women. If we want equality, we can’t simply pay lip service to it.
This isn’t just because it’s the fairest way, it’s because it’s the most effective way. All progress in women’s rights is achieved, time and time again, by women being at the heart of any action affecting them. To repeal these draconian laws, we will need to be there once more.