Trade unions are part of my dna. My father went on strike during the National Building Workers dispute in 1972. Mum did not work outside the home, they had four children and still sent money home to Ireland to our elderly Gran. So striking without any pay was hard. But it was about being part of a community, part of a trade union where people stuck together to improve their lives. Luckily for us our uncle was a docker and he helped us out. Dad was on strike for a week. It wasn’t a successful strike and it meant he was then in debt for many weeks afterwards. Many years later I learnt the history of the Irish in this country. Often stereotyped as “scabs” or “cheap labour” the Irish were and still are the back bone of many trade union and labour organisations. To quote playwright and activist Jim Allen from an article he wrote for the TV times in 1969, “For them (the Irish) life itself is a clenched fist and they imbibe rebellion with their mother’s milk.”
I have always been a trade unionist and on several occasions a shop steward, latterly for the Unite trade union. I have been on strike, walked out of an office to join the picket line of other workers, supported the historic MinersStrike of 1984-5 and the various one day public sector strikes.
The Public Sector strike of November 2011 was different for one main reason; I looked around and saw I was surrounded by women trade unionists – thousands of them! It was like a women’s strike! Care workers, teachers, chiropodists, physios, nurses and many others. It reflects how many women work in the public sector – around 65% (TUC). These women are angry as they are bearing the brunt of the proposed 400,000 job losses over the next four years. Women work in the public sector because it has a better record on pay equality, particularly for those women who work flexibly or part time due to childcare responsibilities. Cuts in the welfare budget will disproportionately affect women. Figure s show that 72% of the changes in taxes , benefits and tax credits will affect women.
For women in the private sector life is little better. Since the recession began there has been a decrease in retail and wholesale work of 34,000 and a 14,000 fall in administrative and secretarial vacancies. Research by the TUC has shown that other sectors are shrinking and numbers of vacancies falling in education by 26,000 and in health and social work by 6,000. Unemployment rates for young women are now the highest on record. And in some areas such as Merseyside, West Midlands, Scotland and Yorkshire the numbers of young women who are unemployed has gone up between 9 and 11%.
It’s no wonder women are angry and out on the streets! But we are out there with our men. It’s only if we all get together to oppose the Con Dem cuts that we will get a fairer, happier society. We are in a different world from the highly organised trade union movement of the 70’s and 80’s and it’s going to take a new way of getting people to work together to get that better society.
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