Labour’s Achievements for Female Trade Unionists, and How Our Generation Will Lead the Change

By Charlotte Nichols / @charlotte2153


Tessa Jowell famously pointed out that when she entered parliament, there were more male MPs called ‘John’ or ‘Jonathan’ than there were women MPs. Representation without addressing the underlying inequalities is merely tokenism, and the Labour Party in Government worked to address these structural problems alongside addressing a lack of representation of women in politics in what was arguably, comparatively, the most feminist government in Britain’s history. One of the key drivers for these long overdue structural changes was the trade union movement.

Now New Labour was not a panacea for the unions, nor for the relationship between Labour and the unions (long characterised as a ‘contentious alliance’) but Labour sought not only to undo the worst of Thatcher’s anti-union legislation but to develop a more modern union movement.

One of the key wins for the unions, and one that is often overlooked, was the introduction of Statutory Recognition in the Employment Relations Act 1998. For the first time, a new statutory procedure was implemented for employers to recognise and collectively bargain with a trade union, in any business with over 20 employees. Legal recognition entitles the union to engage in collective bargaining on pay, hours and holidays, and meant that employees in anti-union workplaces could benefit from being in a recognised workplace. While only a small proportion of recognition applications have gone through the full Central Arbitration Committee (CAC) legal procedure since 2000, the existence of statutory recognition gave trade unions greater leverage to agree voluntary recognition with employers. As 55% of trade union members are women, and women trade union members are paid on average 30% more than their non-unionised counterparts, such a measure disproportionately benefits women.

Labour introduced in 2003 a new right for workers to have ‘learning representatives’ to facilitate their broader training and education. Unionlearn, established by the TUC in 2006 and half-funded through the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), is noted to have “achieved outstanding results at a fraction of the cost of full-time formal education” and has had great success in reaching people who are hard to reach otherwise. In most unions, women are well-represented (and even often over-represented) among Union Learning Reps and Equality Reps. The peer-to-peer training Union Learning Representatives do means dinner ladies teaching dinner ladies, retail workers teaching retail workers, midwives teaching midwives, and so on, empowering both the learner and the trainer. Where much of the work Union Learning Reps do is around basic literacy and numeracy, this confidence-boosting and skills development is a route for many out of low paid and insecure employment.

The National Minimum Wage which, though modest at first due to a lack of robust data on what people were actually getting paid, meant there was a legal floor for wages. This is vital for women, and particularly young, BAME and disabled women, who are statistically more likely than their male counterparts to earn less than a living wage.

Labour also increased statutory holiday entitlement to 28 days (or 5.6 weeks), which gave women a greater work-life balance. They introduced the right to request flexible working, which meant that women with caring responsibilities could request a working pattern that accommodated their needs, with the request having to be given proper consideration by their employer. Maternity leave was extended, and paternity leave introduced, giving new families more time together in the first weeks after birth and new mothers more time to settle in to motherhood.

In 2010, the Equality Act came into effect, which streamlined and strengthened existing equality legislation into one robust bill that sought to fight discrimination in all forms, promote equality and introduce greater transparency in the workplace. The act consolidated nine major pieces of legislation and around 100 statutory instruments, simplifying the legislation so individuals and organisations could be clear on their rights and responsibilities.

The outcome of Labour’s time in government was that women were more economically active, with better wages and with greater legal redress where they were discriminated against on the basis of their gender. Sadly, this work was left unfinished, and in many cases is being rolled back.

Since 2010, and with greater vigour since achieving a parliamentary majority in 2015, the Conservatives have wasted no time in attacking trade unions and members’ rights at work. There’s the introduction of tribunal fees that have seen the numbers of sexual harassment cases going to tribunal falling off a cliff edge, alongside a reduction of around 67% of overall cases. The ideological attack on facilities time and check-off. Rolling back Health and Safety legislation in what has been called the worst backwards step since 1974. Slashing the public sector, on which women are disproportionately likely to rely for their employment and also vital services. Pushing through the Lobbying Bill, which gags unions’ politically, and the Trade Union Bill, which is an affront to workplace democracy. The introduction of a new tier of the National Minimum Wage (which the government are calling the National Living Wage) for over-25s, showing us yet again how little the labour of young people is valued.

Trade union rights are not only human rights, they’re women’s rights. Rather than a government which attacks our right to organise industrially, we need one that will fight for women workers. One that will implement a real living wage, tackle maternity discrimination, implement the dual discrimination provisions of the Equality Act, and all the other measures working women desperately need in the modern workplace and to give them greater economic agency outside it. The Conservatives talk a good talk, but Labour are the only party whose record in government shows they will actually deliver this.

It is vitally important for young members, but young women members particularly, to join and become active in their trade unions in order to defend Labour’s wins for trade unionists from this government and to push for the changes we’re still waiting for. Our affiliated unions are the bedrock of our party and too important to let the Tories try and destroy, not only for our party but our society. There’s a future worth fighting for, and it is up to our generation to lead the change in our unions, our party and our society to see that it’s one for the many not the few.

Charlotte Nichols is Young Labour Women’s Officer

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