On International Women’s Day, our Vice-President and PCS National Political Officer, Lynn Henderson, has a call to men in our movement – step aside, brother!
What with all this “discovery” of embedded sexism and sexual harassment in the workplace, one thing is sure, time is called on underrepresentation of women in the trade union movement.
There are 5.5 million unionised workers in the UK. Women make up half the workforce. So why are they still so under-represented in union structures and in union visibility?
The trade union movement collectively represents and gives voice to working people from all walks of life. Yet the stereotypical trade unionist presents as an older, blue-collar, straight, white, able-bodied man. How can this be when over the past forty to fifty years, union strength has declined in traditionally male occupied industries, with manufacturing jobs. Union strength has rapidly grown in the public sector where more women occupy a larger part of the workforce.
So where are all the sisters?
Underrepresentation of women in trade union leadership and structures is a serious blight. In these times of heightened individual awareness of sexual harassment in the workplace, underrepresentation of women is actually dangerous. Without collective representation individual women suffering the abuse of power feel helpless, isolated and victimised. The #MeToo social media campaign is not enough to challenge every day workplace power abuse. The time is now to dig out and eradicate the blight of underrepresentation.
As a union, PCS collectively bargains for a female dominated industrial sector, civil and public services. Over 60% of our members are women. Yet, even here, with a long serving woman president, and three women Vice Presidents, our activist base at large does not reflect that membership. In fact it is almost a direct reversal of the ratio.
This too is true of most unions. Not only are women significantly under-represented, black, disabled, LGBT and young members are almost invisible in sections of our movement.
If under-representation is a reflection of our unequal society, it is no excuse! Workers deserve better from their movement. If we are serious about strengthening the power of workers, then our structures must reflect the society we wish for, not the unequal one we are in.
Thus far, few in the labour and trade union movement disagree with me on this. Yet, little changes. Most of our good committed leaders, reps and activists in position do not think that it is they who have the power or individual responsibility to make that change. I want to challenge that.
In PCS, our union advocate role as a route in for new activists from more diverse backgrounds. Other unions give the role different names. If we are successful in recruiting under-represented workers to more active roles, then we hope they succeed to full rep positions over time. Step Aside, Brother however is about a conscious and deeply political choice to accelerate that journey.
So let me be more exact and address the men in our movement directly.
Are you a man occupying multiple Union positions?
Are you a man that has held leading Officer posts for years?
Are you a man who is a regular union conference delegate?
Are you a man who is always first to sign up to a union activity?
Hand up first to speak at meetings, Brother?
Yes? Then I am asking you to Step Aside, Brother.
Please don’t be alarmed.
Don’t be threatened.
Don’t think you are not valued, or not wanted in our movement, Brother.
You know you are.
We all benefit because your experience is vast, Brother
We value your tirelessly representation of workers, fighting employer injustice, inequality and discrimination.
We commend the personal sacrifices you make for the collective gains of the workers you represent.
We applaud and thank you for your commitment and your achievements.
You still have much to do, Brother, and much for us to learn from you.
This ask is not for you to resign, Jack it in, give up all or step out, Brother.
The ask is for you to Step Aside from just one of your multiple union positions.
And actively mentor an under-represented member into the role.
Why you, Brother? Ask yourself:
Is it really necessary or in the best interest of our movement that I hold all these offices?
Is there, perhaps, by stepping aside from just one of my positions, I can create space for and bring on someone on?
Perhaps a woman, black or disabled member, an LGBT or young member in need of a step up?
It is not that hard to Step Aside, Brother. Truly it’s not.
It requires foresight, genuine commitment, opportunity and timing.
Step Aside, Brother is no witch hunt or attempt to cull, disempower or punish good brothers for their privilege.
Not at all.
Step Aside, Brother does not seek to subvert union democracy, undermine political leadership or “take out” individuals.
Step Aside Brother is a big Ask to men in our movement to make an individual and conscious act to grow the movement for the future.
Step Aside, Brother recognises to valiant effort and genuine leadership. Most of the greatest displays of leadership witnessed among men in our movement are those that already practice what I am preaching. I am confronted with action in practice everywhere I go. Those brothers that have stepped aside still hold office and influence. The power of those men lies in their politics, not their position. Their Stepping Aside makes way for more leaders and future leaders. We need more men to do this too.
As Vice President of the Scottish Trade Union Congress, I have spoken on many platforms to extend the Step Aside, Brother message. So far, it is received with great interest – from leading Sisters from many different unions. Some of whom say to me the Step Aside message has inspired them to think about how they can give up a position to mentor someone through. That’s great, but it is not sisters we need to make a concerted effort to step aside.
Brothers, think about it. True power is present not when you grasp it and hold on to it, but when you give it to someone else.