It’s time for working women to lead our political debate – and Labour must make it happen

Women trade unionists are meeting to mark International Women's Day

Image: Samwalton9

International Women’s Day 2017 takes place in the context of worldwide attempts to hold back the progressive rise of women in the world of work and in civil society.

Reactionary backlash on women’s rights at work and at home is now ideologically fashionable. It is time for a new vision for women workers to meet the challenges of 2017 and beyond.

We need to articulate a compelling egalitarian vision of working life, a fresh social and economic deal at work and in wider society to appeal the rising generation of young women workers. In order to do this, working class women need to be leading political debate. Working women’s concerns should be at the heart of Labour’s future direction.

unionstogether represents all the unions affiliated to the Labour Party and we are determined to play our part in ensuring that trade union women’s voices are heard in the Party, and that women’s political leadership is advanced.

This week is the annual TUC Women’s Conference, where the issues for working women organised in trade unions are debated by hundreds of women delegates from all parts of the workforce. Prominent on the agenda are the effects of a Conservative government still pursuing the failed policies of austerity, the abysmal failure of this Government’s industrial strategy, the lack of public investment in infrastructure and the wider economy, and the drastic and destructive cuts to public services.

Women trade unionists are fighting back against the deliberate underfunding of the NHS, and social care by this Tory government. These cuts fall disproportionately on women both as workers and carers as a shrunken state withdraws.

The Conservatives’ Trade Union Act 2016 was designed deliberately to frustrate union organisation, workplace representation and working people’s political voice. The need for workplace trade union organisation is nowhere more obvious than in new sectors of the economy. At the conference we will be discussing how many young women workers in the ‘gig economy’, other casual or temporary work are denied the employment rights they need, and denied workplace justice.

The glaring injustices of the gender pay gap and maternity discrimination persist, with Brexit threatening the many progressive gains inherited from European legislation that make all the difference in integrating work and home life.

Ongoing sexism is backed up by harassment in the workplace as the TUC survey ‘Still just a bit of banter?’ showed. This harassment reinforces already existing gender job segregation. Significant areas of the economy are, in effect, no go areas for working women. Girls and young women are still consistently discouraged from pursuing work in tech, in science, and in the skilled manual trades. New apprenticeship starts are still overwhelmingly focused on traditional gender roles.

The TUC Women’s Conference is also discussing the worldwide situation for women, including the dangers to our rights from the election of President Trump and the march of right wing populism across Europe. We will be restating the importance of ending violence against women and girls and challenging the revival of patriarchal assumptions including such things as the outrageous decriminalisation of domestic violence in Russia.

We know the  Conservatives only ever concede  women’s equality as far as this suits their minimalist agenda. And accompanying any concession made will be desperate ideological attempts to culturally neutralise the challenge to the status quo that women’s empowerment brings. Working women look to Labour to advance our interests, industrially and politically.

Later this year, the new look Labour Party Women’s Conference takes place. Trade Union women from the affiliated unions, will be there ensuring that working class women’s voices are heard loud and clear in policy and in the future direction of the party.

In the parliamentary and local government selections and elections which will take place over the next few years, unionstogether will be proactively supporting the increased representation of working class women in the Labour Party.

We believe that this representation should be reflective of wider diversity in working class communities and workplaces with BME women LBT women, and women with disabilities specifically encouraged to put themselves forward. In 2015 many trade union women supported by unionstogether’s training and development programme took their place in Parliament. We are working towards more even more success in 2020.

Maria Exall is vice chair of unionstogether

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