Political Women (8) Voices of Trade Union Women
Education has always been the escape route for working class children out of low paid work but in 2012 it is not just the demise of Education Maintenance Awards and the rise of student fees that are changing their lives, but the changing nature of the labour market which means that, even if you do get a degree (at a high financial cost), you may not get a better job.
I decided to do some research into the lives of women from similar backgrounds to me, but who did not stay in education, and instead went into traditional working class jobs. But, through their involvement in trade unions, they found another way of getting an education, and also developing their own self confidence, and went on to change their lives.
My research started with interviewing women who are active in trade unions. Historically trade unions have offered women opportunities to improve their wages and working conditions, to get an education, to become active in the union and take union jobs, as well as moving into the wider job market. The women I interviewed were Marilyn, Cath, Sharon and Julia. Their ages varied from early 40s to 60s.
Most of the women were not from trade union families, but had worked in industries that were unionised. All of them had left school at 15 or 16, none of them achieved any qualifications at school and all went into unskilled work:
Marilyn (who is in her 60s) said I left school in 5th year and was not encouraged to stay on. My job was to go out, get married and have babies. That was what women’s lives were then and therefore I got married at 17 and had a baby
Why did they join a trade union:
Cath; at 16 I went to work in “Cadburys factory” and it was unionised so I joined.
Marilyn; “I worked in factories that were unionised so if there was a union I would join it. I must have believed in it because I don’t follow like a sheep.”
Julia; “At 16 I went to work in KwikSave and it was unionised so I joined the union and the store.”
Sharon; “At 17 I went to work as a machinist at a factory and I joined the union. I was the youngest person in the union.”
How did this affect their lives?
Three out of the four women worked in factories which had track records of union organisation.
Cath worked on the Wirral in Cadburys factory from 1972-88: There were 2000 members, all in the TGWU, and it was a closed shop. But of the 50 shops stewards only 4 were women. She worked in the factory when single and then went back after her husband was made unemployed, working on the weekend shift as she now had 4 children. Cath became the shop steward and the female deputy convenor spotted her potential: She was my biggest inspiration and encouraged me to do courses. I went back into education and that made me realise I could do anything I wanted. Cath is now a tutor on trade union courses at a college.
Julia also left school at 16 and worked on a checkout at KwikSave. Usdaw recruited her at her induction. She came from a trade union family, her father had been a shop steward on the docks in Liverpool and took part in the Merseyside Dockers Campaign to try and save jobs and the industry. Julia went to Argos, got married and had 2 children, and whilst working on the dayshift became a shop steward. Through the union she has gone on many courses to improve her own qualifications and develop her role as a full time official in her trade union. For her the benefits are clear: Initially I did the learning to improve myself. People don’t realise how being part of a union and taking up educational opportunities can give you confidence in improving your own life and career.
Marilyn’s life changed when she went to work in the food manufacturing industry: In 1996 I went to work in a local bakery, well it’s a factory producing cakes, there are 2000 workers and 90% of them are in the union. For Marilyn joining the union changed her life; It had a massive effect on me, I went on every course and it meant for the first time I travelled by myself on trains and buses all over the country. She worked for the union for a year and wished she had got involved earlier: If I had got involved in the union thirty years ago my life would have gone in a different direction. I would have run for a fulltime officer post and be more active.
Sharon left school at 15 years without any qualifications, mainly because she was dyslexic and was not provided with the appropriate support. In the 1980s she trained as a machinist and joined GMB as the firm was unionised. She was the youngest person in the union. Sharon thinks attitudes to unions were better in the ‘80s: I think unions had a higher and better profile in those days and now they have been run down by the Government.
In 2004 Sharon moved to a large biscuit manufacturer and, as soon as her position was made permanent, she joined USDAW. In the factory there is a Union Learn Centre, a joint employer/union learning centre where staff can obtain qualifications. Sharon was encouraged by the union convenor to do so: He had faith in me, he kept saying you can do it and don’t give up. She has now become a Union Learning representative and says; I now feel able to talk to other people about learning and encourage them the way I was encouraged by the union.
It’s not just in learning that the union has helped Sharon. She has a back problem which affected her attendance at work and may have cost her her job. The union supported me when the company wanted to get rid of me. The union ensured that my condition has been recognised under the DDA and backed me all the way otherwise I would have just given in and given up my job. So being in a union has made a big difference to me and that’s why I say to people that they should join a union.
The key issue for these women was working in organisations that were unionised. It provided not just opportunities to access education, but also enabled them to take positions of authority in the union such as shop steward.
In 2012 unions still have a key role in providing free education. This is rarely recognised in the negative press which unions get in the media. It is clear from my interviews that union membership was a key event in changing the lives of these four women and many others who have taken up the opportunities available to them as union members.
At a time of increased cuts and privatisation of education and training the unions can offer a way out for some of the most disadvantaged groups in society. However the unions themselves have often underplayed their educational role. As Cath says; Unions don’t promote the value of what they do for women, including the confidence they can gain through being a member of a union and being active in it.
In 2012 the TUC has its first woman leader, Frances O’Grady, a single parent from a trade union background. France’s appointment reflects the important position that women hold in the trade unions, they make-up nearly half of all members, they are also taking the brunt of the ConDem cuts. It is an important step in the history of the trade union movement but one woman cannot change history but many women and men can do so and that has got to be the future.