Too Many Men is a series focused on the experiences of women and non-binary people in their workplaces and unions. We’ll be sharing pieces from women who work and organise in factories and warehouses, who work in offices and as couriers in the “gig economy”, union officers and full-time union organisers. It is an attempt to address the imbalance in our movement, and in the New Syndicalist project. The majority of our contributors and editors are cis men – we know we must work to change this. As well as being a matter of justice, we are missing critical perspectives from different parts of our movement, the economy and the class. We’d encourage cis and trans women, and non-binary people, to contribute on any topic. We also welcome feedback on how we can create a platform for a plurality of voices.
In 2017, 26% of women workers were union members, compared to 21% of men. Roughly 55% of union members are women. That these statistics are at odds with most people’s perception of who a trade unionist is might be because the most visible trade unionists in the country are men. Some of the largest unions in the UK (Unite, Unison, GMB, USDAW, PCS and CWU) are currently led by men. Although women are overrepresented in the public sector (the reason there are more women trade union members overall), they are also disproportionately employed in precarious or part-time jobs. This kind of work often involves low pay and poor conditions, and women in these jobs tend not to be union members. In addition, the nature of the work done by many women can sometimes feel incompatible with traditional union organising. The care work researcher interviewed for Talking Shop at the recent IWW Organising Summit spoke of the reluctance of care workers (an industry which predominantly employs women) to go on strike – “If you have a heart then you can never go on strike in care work.” Similar concerns can be found among early years and primary education workers, who are also often women. The labour required in these fields leads many workers to feel that going on strike would harm their pupils. It’s certainly true that this concern is perpetuated and exploited by management, but it is also an extension of the experience many women have in their ‘second shift’ at home. Women are taught early on that caring should be done for love, not money.
Although we might wish it were different, unions reflect the power imbalances and hierarchies that we find across society, in all institutions. The same conditions that make 78% of company board members men, also enable men to hold on to top jobs in large, mainstream unions. And we shouldn’t kid ourselves that grassroots unions are exempt from this. The general secretaries and most visible organisers in these smaller unions are also men. What does this tell us? Namely that it isn’t just hierarchical forms of organisation which reflect and entrench patriarchal norms.
Anecdotal evidence, and my own experience, from the IWW shows that a disproportionately small number of women attend branch and national meetings. It’s often said that these meetings are secondary to actually organising, which is broadly true, but they are where strategic decisions are made. If women aren’t involved in decision making, either as elected officials or in the day to day democracy of branches, then they aren’t meaningfully represented. There are many reasons why women can’t, or don’t want to, attend meetings. Caring responsibilities and anti-social work hours can be barriers to attendance, but so can a perceived ‘boys club’ culture, with cis men doing the bulk of the organising, training, and talking.
Despite all of this, women continue to fight back. In October, more than 8000 Glasgow Council workers went on strike in protest at the lack of progress with their equal pay claims. Thousands of women, many of them cleaners and care workers, have been paid considerably less than men in similar roles, and their claims are being obstructed by city officials. Schools, nurseries and home care services were affected by the strike, and refuse collection was disrupted when these workers refused to cross picket lines. It is likely the biggest strike over equal pay in UK history, and had a huge financial and logistical impact on the city. Women have also withdrawn their labour to fight against restrictions on reproductive freedom. In Poland in 2016, women went on strike and forced the government to abandon legislation which would have amounted to a total abortion ban.
The marginalisation women and non-binary people face in our organising is an injustice, but it is also strategically short-sighted. These are workers who are engaged in key parts of the economy, from food production and distribution, to care work in an ageing society. They know where the weak spots are in those industries, and have ideas about how to apply pressure. We must build unions and branches which are hospitable to them if we want to learn from them and support their crucial struggles. We hope these articles are a useful contribution to this.