Women Organising at Work

The following is a summary of the talks and discussion on women organising in the workplace at the ACG dayschool in October.

Libertarian Communism 2019 Women Organising at Work

The session was led by two women, both very experienced in organising at work.

Meena from the Angry Workers

The Angry Workers is interested in promoting collective organization in west London. The strategy includes getting jobs in the bigger workplaces, building solidarity networks in local areas and producing a newspaper (2000 copies).

Meena works in a ready-meal factory, with up to 4000 workers across four sites in Park Royal, west London. She started three and a half years ago working on the assembly line but then managed to get a skilled job as a forklift driver, one that is normally done by men. She is now ‘permanent’ and a GMB rep. The workforce consists of 60% women with a wage grading system that sees women largely occupying the ‘unskilled’ grade. E.g. all the women work on the assembly line which is actually the hardest job.

Jenny from the ACG

Jenny has been a union activist since the early 1970s. She was in NUPE which then was the union for public sector employees, now Unison. One of their first jobs was as a school auxiliary worker. These jobs were all women. There was a dispute and all the women came out (Jeremy Corbyn was then the full-time official!). Then she worked in the parks department and got involved in the GMB which had no particular structures for women.

The session focused on three main questions. Each speaker addressed the questions.

1. What are the issues facing women at work that are distinct from men? (Obviously they will have a lot in common but there will be issues related to the gender division of labour as well as the fact that often they have domestic duties and most likely will be the ones with

childcare etc.)

Meena

Frist we have to understand that it is not so simple to lump all women together because in the types of jobs I’ve done over the last 6 years (low waged sector), the two main divisions within the workforce are temp/agency workers, and your migrant status (British born vs. migrants).

In terms of gender though, the main thing you notice is how segregated the labour is – men normally do specific jobs in warehouses and factories, even though, often, there is no real reason for this, more of a cultural thing. For example, women work on the assembly line and men do the heavy lifting, drive trucks, operate machinery and do the electrical stuff. Middle and upper management are men and men also do the surveillance.

The assembly line work is very hard and this creates many problems for women.

  • More surveillance. There is no chance to move around like in the other jobs because you have to ask permission, even to go to the loo, and get someone to take your place.
  • Psychologically you begin to feel quite small, always being told what to do- problem of micromanagement. You have no control over how fast the line is going.

But this job is classified as unskilled when it comes to pay negotiations.

Other problems women face, not completely related to gender, include the problem of lack of confidence and general bullying. They are reluctant to put in a grievance, partly related to the fact that the job you do is not respected but the women also worry that their English is not good enough. Men have all the power- making decisions about holidays, overtime, moving people between departments etc so you have to have a good relationship with your manager.

While all women, regardless of their job, may suffer sexual harassment, I would say it is more likely to happen in low waged, low status jobs and the nature of these job (in terms of how the work is organised, what status it has, how much you get paid), does have a worse impact on:

  • women’s ability to fight back in the moment
  • their mental and physical resilience in the face of these humiliations and harassments
  • their confidence in their own position within the labour market
  • their ability to win against the employer.

I don’t want to do some kind of oppression olympics or something, but the fact is that in my workplace, you can really see how the job itself beats you down and that in turn affects women’s ability to see themselves as full members of the working class which in turn affects their level of engagement in unions or organised work activity.

You can’t tackle harassment without changing the work itself – less stress, less hierarchy, more autonomy at work. The question is less, ‘why do men abuse women?’ but more, what social and material conditions are required to reduce men’s ability to abuse and gives more power to challenge it? It’s not just about changing behaviours.

However, the situation is more nuanced; women aren’t all just passive robots. There are examples of collectivity e.g. it was women who organised a big petition against irregular hours at a sandwich factory in Southhall and they all walked-out when they weren’t given an extra break during overtime.  

You do also get demoralising cases though like the woman weeing herself and nobody intervening when she wasn’t allowed to go the loo. Not only was that manager a woman, she was also supposed to be a GMB rep!

This points to intersectionality limits; actually low paid men and women have more in common than women across class lines.

The other issue that is a distinctive issue for women is the home situation, which will be different from men’s. I am talking in a specific context of low-paid manual labour jobs, often majority migrant labour, so women’s lives in these jobs are generally tougher. They have a lot more on their plate in terms of juggling the normal ‘women’ things (childcare and domestic labour) without any recourse to paying their way out of their problems, as well as additional disadvantages like bad housing, poor English, more gendered expectations from their own cultures like cooking the dinners. Family is the thing that bridges the gap that money can’t. This is a double edged sword – you need your family, at the same time, it can confine you even more.

Jenny

Women are often not considered to be ‘proper’ workers; they are seen to be working for ‘pin money’. This is the case with the school auxiliary workers. Yet many of the women are single mothers and very much rely on the wage. But the low wages not only make life difficult but give low self-esteem. The common experience of all working together and experiencing similar issues did make for good solidarity. A lot of women got angry and took action.

In the Parks Department, gender issues relate to the fact that often there is a refusal to accept that there are women working there and that there are some differences that need to be taken into account. For example, there are issues with lifting heavy weights. But also, the protective clothing was all in men’s sizes, e.g. gardening gloves. Also the rip cord on the mower was too long so that it can lead to back injuries. In other words, the organisation of the job assumed it would be a man doing the job and women just had to adapt.

There has also been so many cases of sexual harassment that are never taken up.

2. What obstacles/difficulties  women face when trying to organise? Are men sometimes an obstacle? Are women’s needs accommodated for?

General points from speakers and audience

Issue of life outside work for women

  • Problems with women organising as it can affect the home life. Marriages often break up as women become empowered and question what they have been putting up with. There is the general problem of women having to deal with all the labour at home and then go to work
  • There is a lack of time but also, inclination. Your world does become smaller when you have kids. Most militant women in my factory are older – they have worked at Heathrow and lots of the factories in west London over the last 20 years. They have been in wildcat strikes. Their kids are grown so they don’t have to immediately rush off after work and are a bit more outward looking. The childbearing age women are the least active in my experience which is not to condemn them or give up on them but that is a structural problem that we’re not going to solve overnight. So women in their 30s and 40s disappear, not going to meetings even if there is a crèche.
  • Worlds are small: family and kids, temple or church, work. There are few bigger social spaces where these situations can be challenged other than work at the moment. Historically, it was only when women entered the labour force en masse that they could start to question their lives and oppressive structures – the question of women’s oppression became a social issue in specific historic circumstances. Once women became more central within the working class, they had the social and material power to question relations between men and women more fundamentally. (Feminist movement coincided with this period of women entering work on a mass scale – gave a framework for thinking politically about women’s changing lives – and now we don’t have that). So workplaces are crucial in the question of women’s burgeoning role in questioning and tackling women’s oppression more generally, the point is how does the union facilitate this?
  • Have tried organising women’s meetings, they didn’t come. Men came! Not men’s fault! I think if women were interested, you would suggest you bring your kids along or you would say what you needed to help you come. But you have to want to come first. And this is problem when in most peoples’ experiences, unions are pretty male; it’s a lot of shouting, megaphones, public speaking, talking to management. Unions have been pretty bad! Women don’t have time to get involved in something for the sake of it. There has to be an immediate and practical benefit. Catch -22. You need the women to do this!
  • Women themselves can also be a big barrier; it is not ‘men’ per se that are the problem. For example, the GMB organised a protest outside Elveden for three women who had been moved from one department to another. Very few women came to support them; it was actually mainly men. Example of me doing the trays and the backlash from the women because they didn’t want to be asked to do extra jobs that the men currently do.
  • Confidence is a problem – they are often the driving force of things but want to remain hidden behind the men (e.g. in the photo at the protest they all literally hid behind the men). They are not supporting each other. Problems of sticking together against manager bullying – women feel very alone.
  • Women are not aware of how much power they have. When they do act there has been success, e.g. Gate Gourmet in the 1970s, hospital strikes, Grunwick. It was easier in the days when the unions had a stronger presence at work, e.g. closed shops so that everyone was involved. There was a tradition of militancy in the 1970s that does not exist today. Young women do not have confidence.

Unions and role of men at work as an obstacle

  • Unions are also an obstacle, though. It is the way they recruit now- using scare tactics so they join. But this does not translate into power on the shop floor. People expect the union to do something for them. This is the basis on which they have been recruited.
  • I feel that hostility and patronising attitudes within the unions make organising really difficult for women. 
  • Male attitude that “recruiting cleaners (care-workers, shop workers etc) is just recruiting problems” and therefore not to be encouraged.
  • Construction is an example of types of jobs that are almost all male. These are jobs that tend to be better paid than jobs women do such as in shops or as carers. But it is hard for women to work in this industry. Men are patronising or hostile.

3. What strategies have been adopted? What ideas do we have for ensuring that women are fully represented in the class struggle?

Summary from above.

A key issue are the gendered division of labour in which unequal pay and roles are systemic. This is difficult to challenge due to attitudes of bosses, managers and male and female workers themselves.

Another key problem is the fact that women tend to have larger roles in the home which makes it difficult for them to participate in workplace organising. It also means that women of child-bearing age often leave work or work part-time. This links workplace organising to issues outside the workplace- in the home and community.

Some ideas

  • Need to have places where women can come together collectively. We need community centres where people can meet outside of work.
  • Pick up on their specific issues – problems with proving bullying though and culture of fear.
  • Forcing them to step up, talk to you in public, sign grievances, do collective actions.
  • Not about trying to get more women leaders as such – you’’ll get a certain type of woman. Focus should be more on how to make the union more relevant, militant, effective, responsive and participatory. Obviously you’ll only get so far within the constraints of a union but the idea would be to get workers to rely on themselves first and foremost. 
  • Education sessions for union members
  • Organise social and family events
  • Strategy needs to be practical
  • Separate women’s organisation could have a place, so that men would not dominate. Train women to take up roles, though there is a risk of them being co-opted just like men are by unions.

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