The Glasgow Strike for equal pay shows why unions must be the backbone in the fight for Gender Equality
By Rosa Pavanelli, General Secretary of Public Services International
This week in Glasgow, Scotland, over 8000 woman walked off the job to protest the City Council’s continued failure to settle a decade-long Equal Pay dispute. These women are nursery workers. They are home carers. They are cleaners and caterers and learning support aides. They are public service workers who care for those most at need.
Yet for decades they have dealt with a brutal reality; that their work is not ‘worth’ the same as that of their male counterparts.
And now they are taking action.
Of course there’s nothing new about linking the fight for labour rights with other issues such as gender equality. Unions once served as an incubator for a range of social movements; many radical at the time but now commonly accepted. Like the suffragette movement and the right to vote for non-land owning citizens. Or desegregation in the USA and the end to apartheid in South Africa.
But recently, many progressive causes have been co-opted and corporatised. Wealthy, (predominantly white) women business leaders tell us that the problem is not the patriarchy or inequality. Instead the individualised neoliberal subject needs to “lean in” to get ahead: whatever that might mean…
This “depoliticised” model of modern feminism ignores the key factor which has led to success in the past: building our collective power to challenge the status quo.
Of course we cannot just point the finger at the rich and wealthy. Unions have not made enough space for women or youth or minority voices. We know the global labour movement will not survive if it remains male, pale and stale.
We need to fight for all voices to be heard — and for equal representation at all levels of our organisations. We need to bring these localised struggles to the global level — equal pay for work of equal value is enshrined in the Declaration of Human Rights and numerous International Labour Organsiation Conventions, after all.
The women on strike are part of a female-dominanted workforce — a workforce which is both economically and socially undervalued. Their work is often invisible; they clean schools and hospitals after hours, they take care of the elderly in their homes, they cook the meals behind the cafeteria doors. But silence and absence speaks volumes — by walking off the job, their contribution to society has been made clear for all to see.
In an age of identity politics and increased polarisation, it’s more important than ever to be both united in our diversity; and to recognize that we’re all part of the same struggle for economic and social justice.
Unison and GMB — the two unions on the frontline of this Strike — have poured huge effort into making these links. They listened to their members, admitted past wrongs and turned to how to win, now. They made equal pay the heart of a new organizing campaign and used it to help build their power. They took court case after court case and won at every level — yet the council still continually failed to settle the workers’ legitimate claim.
Last month they put the decision in the hands of the workers: “are we ready to strike for this,” they asked? Over 90% responded yes.
Many political leaders and parts of the media have patronisingly accused unions of manipulating the women; a charge which Maureen McNamara, a former home-care worker, emphatically denies:
“This has not come from the unions, it has come from the workers. The unions answer to us. Yes, the GMB let down their women workers in the past. They have held their hands up to that but the new staff are a breath of fresh air,” she said.”
Such a frank assessment might be hard for some in our movement to hear.
But Maureen’s message is clear — we need to accept our past has not been perfect. We need to welcome fresh, diverse members and staff who can understand the struggles of those they fight for. And we need to recognize that unions exist to serve the interests of workers — not the other way round.
The only way we can achieve gender equality and other victories is if we aren’t just allies to social movements — but the core player embedded within them. The fight by Glasgow’s workers for economic justice and gender equality shows this is possible. I do not have a doubt that they will win.
To see PSI’s live reporting from the picket-lines of the Glasgow Strike for Equal Pay, follow the link below: