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Women, work and walkouts

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The strikes across the public sector on 30 November will see more women walk out than ever before in Britain. Judith Orr looks at how women built a tradition of fighting back
Issue 2273
Liverpool typists in the Nalgo union strike in 1981. They forced the union to back their action—and won unprecedented solidarity from other workers (Pic: John Sturrock)
Liverpool typists in the Nalgo union strike in 1981. They forced the union to back their action—and won unprecedented solidarity from other workers (Pic: John Sturrock)

Almost a million women will begin voting in the Unison union’s huge strike ballot this week. They are part of a growing army of women workers who are getting ready to take on the Tories.

Women today make up 60 percent of the total public sector workforce. The TUC demonstrations this year and the 30 June strikes have seen large and militant contingents of women workers.

Some are veterans of bitter struggles against Margaret Thatcher’s government. Others are taking action for the first time, full of rage and confidence that hasn’t been tempered by years of holding workplace organisation together.

Unions are often thought of as predominantly male organisations, with women on the margins. But figures show that women are now more likely than men to be in a union. From 2002, women’s union membership rate in the public sector overtook that of men.


It has taken a century of struggle to get to this point. The First and Second World Wars saw mass influxes of women into the working class—and they soon started to organise.

With millions of adult men conscripted into the military, women were drafted into jobs that had previously been out of bounds.

Escaping the isolation of the home and achieving some sort of financial independence was a liberating experience for many of them. In some cases they found themselves accepted into trade unions.

In 1918, women working as drivers and conductors on London buses walked out after they were denied a 5 shilling bonus given to male drivers.

In a Labour Research Department study of women and trade unions at the time, Barbara Drake wrote, “London women bus conductors were not accustomed to such treatment; they had begun to taste power. They threatened drastic action.”

Their demand was “same work, same pay”. Supported by male workers, they won a swift victory of a wage rise equivalent to men’s rates. But they did not win the principle of equal pay—the bosses did not want to set a precedent for peacetime.

After both wars, women were quickly told their patriotic duty now lay in giving the jobs back to men returning from the front. But many did not give them up easily.

A government propaganda drive after the Second World War urged women to accept homemaking as their primary role. “Scientific” studies were invoked to demonstrate that children suffered “maternal deprivation” if their mother worked. Moral panics about “latch-key children”, who had to let themselves into their homes after school, were widespread.

Many women were forced out of wartime jobs. But the postwar boom changed everything. It led to a massive expansion of white collar work and education. This, alongside the greater availability of safe and reliable contraception, meant that women were drawn into the workforce in unprecedented numbers.

This mass entry into the workforce created expectations that the system was reluctant to fulfill. Many women became radicalised when they ran up against discrimination and bigotry. The women’s movement of the 1960s and 1970s was a product of that experience.


The question of equal pay came to a head in 1968 when a group of women at Ford’s Dagenham car plant in east London decided they should be paid the same as men doing a virtually identical job. Their struggle was later portrayed in the film Made in Dagenham.

Rose Boland, the leading steward in the Ford machinists’ strike, told Socialist Worker at the time, “When we go into the Ford company, we have to pass a test on three machines. If we don’t pass then we don’t get a job. So why shouldn’t they recognise us as skilled workers?

“Personally I think if a woman does the same type of work as a man she should be entitled to equal pay.”

The Ford women didn’t win outright victory then. But their courage and audacity ensured it was only a matter of time before legislation was passed. Equal pay became a legal right, in principle if not in practice, in 1970.

Today, women workers are again under attack. Working class women are suffering from spending cuts both as public sector workers and as people who often rely on the services that are being slashed.

The TUC has calculated that “women will pay for roughly 72 percent of the changes in taxes, benefits and tax credits” associated with the cuts.

The challenge the whole trade union movement faces is the greatest in generations. The scale of the attack has united lecturers and teachers with cleaners and housing workers, civil service workers and nurses with road sweepers and social workers.

We are witnessing the beginning of a reawakening of the working class in Britain after decades of passivity and defeats. Millions of workers, women and men, can see that this is an out-and-out class battle whose outcome will affect every one of us.

Our side is all the stronger now that women are part of that struggle in greater numbers than ever before in Britain’s history.

How ‘family values’ hold women back

The system needs women to work. Whatever the Tories may say, even they don’t want to drive women out of the workforce entirely.

Lone parents make up a quarter of all families, and 90 percent of lone parents are women. And in 20 percent of families with a male and female parent, the woman’s income represents over half the family income.

Yet this doesn’t mean that the propaganda about the role of women in the family has stopped. The ideological pressure on women still plays a powerful role.

The Tories love to lecture women, telling them they should be financially independent and not be a burden on the state.

Yet at the same time women are encouraged to believe they bear the responsibility for family matters, whether it’s caring for children or elderly people.

This contradiction is played out every week in homes across the country, and in the numerous support networks that enable women to earn an income. Official childcare is used when it’s affordable—and support from grandparents and neighbours when it’s not.


So the role of women in the family shapes their entry into the workforce. It explains why women are more likely to work part time than men. And the fact that part-time work is typically lower paid than its full-time equivalent goes some way to explaining the pay gap between women and men.

Taking prime responsibility for childrearing also explains why fewer women reach the higher levels of business, academia and every other profession that punishes those who take time out of their career.

It affects the unions too. Even unions with a majority of women members have had largely male leaderships.

Historically it has often been difficult for many women to attend union meetings out of work time. This has often meant they don’t stand for or get elected for branch or regional positions—and this gender deficit becomes replicated right up the union hierarchy.

Today many unions go to some lengths to make it easier for women to get involved. At Unison’s national conference, for example, there is a full-time creche for children of delegates. 15 unions are now led by women.

There is still more to do. But we have moved a long way from the days of early craft unions that banned women from joining.

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