The job of the union movement is to stand up for all working people, but that task is only being served if the rights of women at work are at the forefront of everything we do.
That’s certainly the case at my union, UNISON, where over three-quarters of our members are women working in the public sector. Every day I see the range of specific challenges that women see in the workplace.
The obvious issue which many people – rightly – focus on is pay inequality. Women receive on average 17.2% less than their male counterparts, and the gap is still 11.4% in the public sector.
The government say that the answer is voluntary action, but that hasn’t worked. The only action that has helped close the gap is legislation, which unions have been at the forefront of campaigning for. And although we’ve had a great deal of success, the battle is far from won.
Strong unions – especially at a workplace level – are ideally placed to fight for equal pay, and to ensure that promises on pay equality are kept.
But the challenges women face are far from limited to pay.
For example, in recent years sex discrimination claims have fallen by 83%. That’s not because there’s been a huge decline in such discrimination – if only – but because the government have made it more difficult and more expensive to take action against your employer.
Workplace representatives play a crucial part in helping those who suffer such discrimination, and strong unions can – and must – support those who wish to take action but might otherwise struggle to do so.
Standing up for those who are discriminated against and ensuring every woman receives the pay they deserve. These are just a couple of the reasons that women at work need strong unions today. But they’re part of a history of fighting and delivering for women that goes back decades. Without the union movement we wouldn’t have the minimum wage, maternity pay or paternity leave. We wouldn’t have guaranteed annual holidays. And we wouldn’t have the equal rights at work legislation that even allows us to stand up and demand equal pay and equal treatment in the workplace.
Our movement faces many struggles in the year ahead – and women will be at the forefront of that. Our challenge is to continue to deliver for women, and fight for a more equal country. Because if you believe in a fairer, more just society in which women play not just an equal part but a leading role, then being part of our great movement is absolutely essential.