Women: The Biggest Change in UK Trade Unionism

Women: The Biggest Change in UK Trade Unionism

Trade Unions (TU) are potentially moving into a transformative phase in the UK, especially due to Jeremy Corbyn’s pro-union stance, that appears to be aimed at reviving the TU movement.  Not only as the overall number of employees enrolled in TUs increased to 6.35 million in 2018, a two-year consecutive annual increase, but also, the proportion of employees who were members increased from 23.3% in 2017 to 23.4% in 2018. However, the biggest gains were for the female TU membership, female employees being members of TUs increased to 26.2% reaching 3.52 million in 2018 from 3.39 million members in 2017. 

The reasons cited for this trend are diverse. They include the fact that there has been a steady rise in female employment, and steady but low decline in female membership of TUs. This is in contrast to male membership which has declined significantly over the past decade. 

Inclusion of larger number of women in TUs can be expected to lead to some very interesting outcomes, both in the ways, the TUs operate, and the issues that take the centre stage for TUs.  It can be seen as a pivotal starting point for women-focused issues like development of female-supportive work environments. It is interesting to note, that the basic profile of an average TU member still remains the same, other than the fact that a large number of them are now women. Most TU members are still 35 years or over, and from public sector organisations, indicating that the biggest gains in TUs will be expected in the public sector. However, the employment trends in the public sector indicate a steady reduction of jobs, with 1 million further jobs likely to be cut in the coming years. It will be interesting to follow how the growth in TUs’ strength  may influence this trend

For the majority of their history, TUs have largely ignored female participation. The underlying reason being that women were seen as passive participants, reluctant to participate in industrial action and prioritising their families over unionism. This approach to women has led TUs to ignore the typical issues that women may be facing at their workplaces. More often than not, gender discrimination issues taken up by TUs have been confined to those related to sexual harassment, rather than aimed at levelling the playing field for women. TU activities in the past have not truly supported female employees. For example, teaching Assistants in Derby and Dunham schools, mostly women, were left to fight against pay cuts of up to 25% on their own, as their TUs did not provide the needed support. Also, though women may not have led much of TU activism, a lot of TU activity has been propelled by female workers’ rising against workplace discrimination. Several examples from the past indicate that women in TUs can make a powerful and sustainable impact on governmental policy-making.

The recent changes are poised to make a major shift in the internal culture of trade unions and to probably make them more open and women-friendly. With more female members in the unions, it is a possibility that the unions would actively work toward reducing the gender pay gap which still stands at 18% less pay for women, though the issue is more marked in the private sector where union numbers are low.  

Also, internal organisational restructuring of trade unions may be called for, with the inclusion of more women as members. Conceptually,  TUs may have women cells to deal with female issues or set aside quotas for women to be placed in decision-making positions, but, due to low representation earlier, such prescriptive approaches have not achieved much. Now, with growth in female leadership, it can be expected that female leadership will emerge in the TUs. Until recently, most TUs were led by males, with Francis O’Grady being an exception as the first female General Secretary of the TUC. This, too, is likely to change with the surge in female membership and more active participation of younger women in trade unions.

With more women in decision-making and leadership capacity in the unions, some areas that can be explored by trade unions with the change in their internal structuring could include issues that have been glaringly neglected earlier, like gender-based ageism and violence against women. Another area that may be up for debate and support from unions could be convincing male members to take on family caring responsibilities equally with female members, so as to challenge workplace discrimination more effectively.

TUs can be expected to grow and re-orient themselves to deal with more “women-focussed” issues. Not only overt or explicit barriers to female workplace participation and compensation may be addressed but more intricate and institutional and structural barriers may be seen as targets for union’s focus in the coming years.


About the Author