Why women need unions

UNISON campaigns for equality and autonomy for women, in society and in the workplace

8-14 Feb 2016 is heartunions week. To mark the week, Left Foot Forward are running a series of articles about trade unions. You can find out more at heartunions.org

This week sees the gathering of more than 800 women belonging to one of the biggest – possibly the biggest – women’s voluntary organisations in the UK. Not the WI or the Girl Guides – this week is UNISON’s annual women’s conference, and it coincides beautifully with heartunions week.

UNISON made a huge commitment to its primarily female membership when it was formed more than 20 years ago. That commitment – to ensure that women were always proportionately represented in our structures – has meant that our bargaining agenda has changed dramatically over the years, because women have set that agenda.

In the dark old days of evening meetings in smoke-filled rooms, when the chairman’s word was law and women members could enter the ‘prettiest new recruit’ competition in the national journal, it was bonus payments and car allowances which were the hot topics, inevitably debated over a pint or two.

But once women’s voices started to be heard, and grew louder and more insistent, that began to change. And this year’s women’s conference – the largest ever – will continue to demand that change.

We have so much to be proud of. So much that unions demanded, and achieved.

We may still have a long way to go to have truly family-friendly workplaces, but it is only a generation ago that maternity leave was just a few short months, at best. There was no guarantee of pay and you were lucky to keep your job.

Although women still experience pregnancy and maternity discrimination, it is now from a minority of employers and we have laws in place to challenge them, despite the scandal of the government’s introduction of employment tribunal fees.

The days of women receiving ‘pin-money’ are long gone. Now, thanks to the battles fought in the courts and the agreements negotiated with employers, the cook and the caretaker are valued equally, and the man who cleans the graffiti from the school walls is paid the same as the woman who cleans the loos. Gender is not the major factor in who gets what.

Holiday pay, sick leave, parity in training opportunities, positive action, the right to request flexible working – all negotiated and championed by unions, all playing their part in creating more equal workplaces. And then there are the other things, the ones where people say ‘What’s that got to do with the union?’

When we first started talking about domestic violence as a workplace issue, people were resistant, considering it to be a private affair. No longer. The impact of domestic violence on society and on the economy – the lost productivity, lost days, lost lives – is now acknowledged by government and employers, and workplace policies to support those experiencing abuse are commonplace.

When we asked women for their stories, one said ‘the union was my only lifeline’, and she was not alone.

We still have more to do, more workplaces to convert. And we still campaign on other forms of violence against women – on rape, prostitution and FGM, on the right to choose and the media’s portrayal of women. Because until women have true equality and autonomy in society, they can never have true equality in the workplace.

We will also continue to challenge the government and employers on exploitative zero hours contracts, ten minute care appointment, payments for travel time , or whatever new horror is dreamed up in the name of cutting costs.

But in the meantime we will savour the little victories. Like the midwife who asked us for help because she had been told that when her new baby – born through surrogacy – arrived she was not entitled to maternity leave to care for her child, nor even to adoption leave, because the law did not allow it. UNISON took her case, and we won.

We won for her but we also changed the law, so other women will benefit too. Not as many as the thousands who have benefited through our work on equal pay, but maybe a hundred or so women each year. But that one woman we helped – that is why we do what we do.

So yes, those women at conference this week do indeed heart their union. They are now 78 per cent of UNISON and that figure continues to grow. It will keep on growing, and our union will remain strong – because that next challenge is always just around the corner.

Sharon Greene is UNISON’s national women’s officer

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