UNISONActive is an unofficial blog produced by UNISON activists for UNISON activists. Bringing news, briefings and events from a progressive left perspective.

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Trade unionism a career or a cause?

The Observer ran a good feature this past weekend on the women changing the trade union movement, though disappointingly they failed to acknowledge the work of Heather Wakefield of UNISON who has presided over two major industrial disputes in local government which saw more women than ever take action in modern Britain. However the piece on women in the movement is a case of bitter sweet.

The trade union movement in Britain has become increasingly professionalised and perhaps (dare we say it) a career of conscience for the middle classes of the left who in the past may have become lawyers working in the Harriet Harman style of a local law centre. This is not necessarily a criticism but an observation.

So should we be pleased that we now have strong bright women acknowledged as leaders in the movement? Obviously the answer is yes! For too many years male after male succeeded over more able women as local, regional or national officials. The trade union movement that I first became involved with in the late 1980s was one where deals were to be had in the pub and which shamefully, if not deliberately, excluded women; especially those of us that found the pub environment not exactly conducive to a working mum's timetable naturally dominated by the need to pick up children after work only to find that the next day the branch ‘discussions’ or ‘consultations’ had been concluded over a few pints of lager – and decisions arrived at with a very male view of the world.

It is at this junction that the sweetness of female success is embittered by reality. The new breed of bright young things – for that matter male or female - will not naturally reflect the harsh reality that many lay activists in the movement have experienced in person and hand in hand with their members.

The new shift patterns that will result in unaffordable childcare. The cuts in overtime that mean that the person the week before that came to see you for welfare support will now spiral into deeper debt. The woman with the poorly kid, who you know has had to phone in sick to try and balance keeping a job with being a single mum, but now faces a sickness monitoring review.

The power of women activists at a lay level lies not in qualifications or measures of strategic success but the empathy that they exude making trade unionism a living breathing source of support; a means to rebalance the unfair advantage of employers over working people. The real heroines of the movement are those women who don’t enjoy themselves decent terms and conditions, or company cars, but fight for the cause of trade unions and their members each and ever day, often with little acknowledgment or thanks but with unnerving passion for the cause.

Women at a national and regional level certainly deserve to be celebrated but in doing so it is wrong for the Observer to be so blinkered in failing to acknowledge the drivers for change in the movement most often come from the women working as lay activists at the coalface.

Anna Rose