November 26, 2021

Trade unions are about to become more powerful again. You may not have noticed it: trade unions aren’t much noticed now. But in the aftermath of Covid, and as the nature of work changes, they are renewing their purpose and their membership. Specifically, their female membership: a trade unionist in the United Kingdom today is more likely to be a woman than a man.

Not only are they powering growth in membership, they are to the fore in campaigns, organising and policy. And while it’s always dangerous to ascribe special moral properties to women bosses as against their male equivalents, it may be that their growing number could mark a difference.

The leaders of the two largest unions are women — Christine McAnea of the public sector based Unison, with 1,369,114 members and Sharon Graham at Unite with 1,291,017 members, together accounting for half of UK union membership. In Graham’s case, she won the general secretaryship in August this year after a tough election battle with sometimes angry men.

Graham is a tough agitator. She was only 17 when, as a waiter, she led a walkout to demand higher wages, and won. She was ready to send strikers to picket the homes of company directors in a planned strike at the Grangemouth refinery, in 2013, and to lobby directors of British Airways over an action — badged as “BA Betrayal” — to stop the airline firing staff and re-hiring at lower salaries in the summer of 2020. She remains a leftist radical: but unlike her predecessor, Len McCluskey, a passionate supporter of Jeremy Corbyn when he was leader of the Labour Party, her insistent message has been that it is the members, and not an alliance with a Labour Party in opposition, who will dictate policy and action.

McAnea has also signalled that she has little interest in Labour’s internal battles – in contrast to her three more left wing male competitors. Graham is even more outspoken: in an article in the Financial Times soon after her election (Len McCluskey would have given his views to the Morning Star) she wrote that “our political demands must come from the workplace up, not the top down… I believe that ordinary members who are interested in the union’s affairs are fed up with the political tail wagging the industrial dog”. This would seem to open the way to a different sort of leadership than most unions have known.

Female trade union membership rose to 27.2% of the UK workforce in 2020, from a low of 25.6% in 2017. Male membership, by contrast, fell from 21.0% in 2017 to 20.2% in 2020. No mystery as to why: public sector unionism approaches twice that of the private sector, at 4m last year (an increase of 228,000) to the private sector’s 2.56m (a loss of 110,000); the high labour areas of health, education, social work and administration are heavily feminised and unionised. It was in the private sectors that the great industrial citadels of mainly male labour stood, many now no longer.

With women the rising force, a different approach to organising is emerging. Jane McAlevey, a US labour strategist and one of Graham’s influencers has written, “power for ordinary people can be built only by ordinary people standing up for themselves with their own resources, in campaigns where they turn the prevailing dogma of individualism on its head”. Mary Harrington recently speculated that, if typical female approaches to institutional life were to increase as more and more women climb the various ladders of power, there “might be a shift away from overt hierarchy within institutions – something that has indeed been a trend in corporate life over recent decades.”

Ordinary people now have a better shot at being heard, and their problems addressed, than before the pandemic. Labour MP John Cruddas has warned, in his book The Dignity of Labour, against globalisers’ tendency to show “derision for home, work and community”, areas where representatives have “particular moral obligations to an electorate”. He rejoices that, during the pandemic, the TUC found a rare national role in negotiating furloughs, arguing that “the idea of an alliance between the nation and the working class is not yet dead”.

A political movement which has seen limited female participation may now follow the lead of the two new women leaders. They are likely to eschew the heavily politicised cabal approach, as in previous eras, in favour of a more inclusive one. Organised labour will require varying mechanisms within communities as well as nationally in order to again find a role after the imperious heights of influence they once commanded. But to settle into that role, and to use it to the benefit of their members and the nation, the broadening of, and popular control from the mass of the membership must construct a framework for that membership now more feminised, more diverse and more varied in their political choices.

How far they will feel willing or able to fundamentally change their unions’ culture is to be seen: but they are more likely to consider it, or to recognise the need for it, than their male predecessors. They know that many tens of thousands of union members in the North of England have voted Tory, and tens of thousands in Scotland will have done the same for the Scottish National Party. Why should these members, in unions like Unison and Unite, follow policies produced by left-wingers in a union still supportive of Labour, still intent on funding it?

How much more would the unions’ members benefit if a range of political, economic and social views were represented on the unions’ top policy-making councils, and arguments this way and that were made public and open? Radicalism could and should win when members are threatened with pay cuts on a “fire and rehire” basis, as in the British Airways case (cuts dropped to get agreement). Conservatism could and should win when an action seems badly thought out, and doomed to fail.

It is likely that, as Cruddas puts it, “the pandemic has forced us to re-engage with the dignity of labour.” Unions have displayed many faults, and will again – cheating and greed, at times, among them. But they are composed of men and women who work, who in that work earn a place in society, and should have a means of discussion and argument which is more meaningful, more part of the communities in which they live and work, a vital component of a re-energised civil society. With women to the fore, the change may be possible.