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The new power behind the unions Female radicals are changing how things get done

Women are rallying. Credit: Dan Kitwood/Getty

Women are rallying. Credit: Dan Kitwood/Getty


November 26, 2021   4 mins

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.


John Lloyd is a contributing editor to the Financial Times and is writing a book on the rise of the New Right in Europe.


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Peter LR
Peter LR
2 years ago

When discussing unions there is the usual smokescreen of language to peer through. The quote made: “the working class is not yet dead” is an example. Public sector employees are mainly middle-class (I scrupulously avoided saying ‘workers’). ‘Workers’ driving Tube trains earn circa £50-100 grand. The union concept has changed from its original important aim of representation against unfair treatment (fire and rehire), to political activism usually on the Left (eg Brexit opposition).
The article did not mention Jo Grady of the Universities Union: she wouldn’t support Kathleen Stock. I would say this augers a Union stance of identity politics agitation. The jury is out.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 years ago
Reply to  Peter LR

We know that the archetypal huge industrial behemoths employing thousands of (mainly male) workers is largely (though not entirely) a thing of the past. However the idea that the working class is ‘dead’ in any classical Marxist or indeed common sense point of view is not true. Shop workers, cleaners, minicab drivers, care workers, traffic wardens, hospital porters etc etc. Some in the private, some in the public sector. They are the rather unheard, often invisible and unfashionable people to both Left and Right who are certainly not highly paid.

Last edited 2 years ago by Andrew Fisher
Keith Jefferson
Keith Jefferson
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Fisher

Yes, indeed. The article from John Lloyd concentrates on the public sector unions, where many lower middle and middle class women are employed. In my home town (south east coast) the biggest employment sector is care homes, overwhelmingly staffed by working class women working at or below the minimum wage. And, my God, the working conditions are grim. And are the unions organising there? Of course not. It’s all very well for the author to trumpet the rise of women’s influence in the union movement, but at the moment it isn’t of much help to the most downtrodden.

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
2 years ago

The worrying trend in public unions/workers is the idea that the job is there solely for the benefit of the jobholders and less and less for the benefit of the public they are supposed to be serving.

Repeat – people like the teachers and the doctors and nurses are there as public servants. If somebody is ill but the doctor has a rule of working which says “Stop! My rules of work are…” then the doctor is more interested in herself than the patient.

Union officials would say something like, “The government needs to pay more.” And the old argument continues. Metaphorically speaking, some of the public employees are getting away with murder. Members of the public service unions are not downtrodden, starving labourers who have nothing but work, work, work. They have good working conditions, plenty of time off for training and study (if they want it), a job for life and a fantastic pension.

Christian Moon
Christian Moon
2 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

Prioritising the comfort and conditions of the people inside the organisation over the service delivered outside it seems like a characteristically feminine and family-based psychology.
Men justify themselves by their work, whereas women are intrinsically valued and worthy of (self-)care.
(Following vaguely a theme of Jordan Peterson’s.)

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
2 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

Yet they still think they deserve more.
Should the ordinary members of the public have their own union to take on the public sector

Al M
Al M
2 years ago

Taxpayers’ Alliance?

Antony Hirst
Antony Hirst
2 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

Agreed…unfortunately. I have become so jaded over government workers in recent times. The whole government-funded industry segment is looking more like a grift on the taxpayer each passing year.
Now gender-based unions cashing in on the action.

Keith Jefferson
Keith Jefferson
2 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

Part of the problem with the public sector unions, and especially the doctors and nurses unions, is that there is a conflict between their roles as a professional trades bodies (i.e. setting professional standards for those working in the industry) and representing members interests (i.e. traditional union activities such as campaigning for employment protections, better pay and conditions etc.) That is where they have got the idea that the job is there solely for the benefit of the jobholders and less and less for the benefit of the public they are supposed to be serving.
This tends not to happen in the private sector, where there may well be a professional body, but if there is any unionism it has to be organised by a separate organisation.

Arnold Grutt
Arnold Grutt
2 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

‘Public service’ is meaningless guff, because ‘the public’ is an abstraction, not a reality in the actual physical world. It’s like abasing oneself to a ‘trend’. It can only be ‘measured’, not demonstrated.

Marie Morton
Marie Morton
2 years ago

As a former teacher the union I belonged to had nothing in common with the one my dad belonged to (EEPTU where he became a lifelong brother after 30 years). His had a respect for the proud history of skilled people who had built Britain whilst determined to maintain wage differentials for those who were more skilled and focussed on local specific issues where poor decisions by management could be negotiated. My union became increasingly concerned with international politics, becoming woke before the term was applied and had little interest in school specific issues.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago

Its the Gretta syndrome. Young PostModernist, Neo-Marxist, 5 Wave Feminists who see themselves as some kind of secular Joan of Arc out to right injustice and tear down the system. If they have to destroy the system to save it, they are up to it.

Teaching unions in UK and USA, women led….Scr ew education, the children need to be taught what to think – not how. As Jean Brodie said – give me a child at 7 and they are mine for life (paraphrasing Aristotle) (and I need another 5 months off work with pay to be safe…)ï»ż

Caroline Watson
Caroline Watson
2 years ago

I am pleased to see women running unions. I am pleased that their priority appears to be their members; hopefully particularly those on low pay and zero hours contracts.
Unions are, however, only as strong as their members and have to recruit a considerable proportion of any workforce to have credibility with employers. If unions want to recruit ordinary working people, particularly the female ones, they need to stop identity politics now. Women on low pay, struggling with trying to balance work and childcare, want union representatives who understand and support them. They do not want to be lectured by blue-hairs about how they should be happy to share workplace lavatories with men, and that they have ‘white privilege’.
The purpose of unions is to represent the working class; both sexes and all colours. If they do that, they will recoup power and credibility, whoever their leaders are.

Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
2 years ago

I think it’s a pity this article focusses on the gender issue.

Since Blair and Clinton ushered in globalisation, the political left has abandoned the working class. Wokism is their intellectual justification to maintain a self image as the defender of the underdog.

Thatcher had neutered the unions, so there was no countervailing power to protect those at the bottom of the scale, who have been royally sc*****d over the last two decades.

If trade unions are starting to understand that their job is protecting members from rapacious employers, not promoting the fashionable causes of the political left, that’s a good thing. Whether the sex of two particular leaders who have started to realise that is relevant, I doubt.

The pernicious effects of wokism can only be fought (without recourse to locking and loading anything, hi James) democratically from the ground up. Trade Unions seem an unlikely source of the organisational capability to do that, but if there is any tendency that way I’m all for it.

I’m shocked to find myself supporting strong trade unions, and entirely accept their current role represents more middle class people than working class.

Nevertheless the historical legacy (at least in the UK) is of community based organisations advocating the values and interests of society’s lower rungs. This constituency is the least woke of any and any way of organising it has value.

Last edited 2 years ago by Martin Bollis
Ian Barton
Ian Barton
2 years ago
Reply to  Martin Bollis

Excellent

Christopher Chantrill
Christopher Chantrill
2 years ago

The foundation of my sexist belief system is that “women expect to be protected” but “men know they are expendable.”
So I would say that male industrial unionism was an effort to stave off the obvious, that every man is expendable, certainly once the industry he works in, whether machine textiles, machine industry, fossil fuels (!) is past its prime.
Female unionism is government employee unionism, and I argue that the one unifying fact about modern government programs is that they all Make Things Worse.
So we have the women government employees unionizing their jobs that Make Things Worse because they expect to be protected.
Nothing good will come of this.

Tony Taylor
Tony Taylor
2 years ago

We had a union meeting just yesterday. Five out of the six union officials were women.

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
2 years ago

There is a whole generation of daughters of “campaigning feminist mothers” that seek their own cause to chase – add in the increasing demonisation of males, and I’m amazed there are any male union staff at all.
Like the unions, the BBC seems to only recruit news staff with “suffragette credentials”.

Last edited 2 years ago by Ian Barton
Arnold Grutt
Arnold Grutt
2 years ago
Reply to  Ian Barton

But in the shadow world of the left, and its eating of itself, a woman can now be accused of a ‘hate crime’ for tweeting a photo of a suffragette ribbon.
When politics depends on ‘solidarity’ the tendency for victims to be expelled and persecuted rises exponentially.

Last edited 2 years ago by Arnold Grutt