The film “Made In Dagenham” is one of the few images out in the public arena of what it means to be a woman trade unionist and to be involved in an industrial dispute. It is still rare to see women shown in these roles in the media . Most of the images of trade unionists are of men, usually manual workers being well…masculine and often stereotyped by the media as threatening.
Recently I was invited along to the CWU North West Regional Women’s Committee meeting. The CWU is an interesting union as its membership is a mixture of privatised industries such as British Telecom, the publicly owned Royal Mail as well 02,Orange and Santander. The CWU has 207,500 members and is a small union in comparison to my union, Unite, which is about 2 million strong.
At the meeting there were women from CWU branches across the northwest. There was also one man there, the committee does allow men to join them as representatives from branches rather than have no rep at all. It was a lively and inspiring meeting. The discussion ranged from issues regarding the internal politics of the union to the need for women to be active in their union and their workplace. Although many women are union members, its still rare to see women in the top jobs in unions so it was great that the new Vice President of the CWU, Beryl Shepherd was present.
A Geordie woman, she spoke about her experiences as a woman worker with a child (and a supportive husband) and her involvement in the union. She talked of the need for women in the CWU to challenge negativity towards them and that sometimes the best people to challenge this was the people who had faced these problems. What was inspring about the meeting was the warmth and generosity of the women, not just to each other but caring about society generally. Apart from the stresses and strains of doing two jobs at work ie their job and being a trade union representative, they were interested in the world. They discussed the welfare cuts and they had made the time during the year to collect Xmas gifts for women in refuges.
My own experience of trade unions is that their collective nature can bring out the best in us all. And that is about supporting the vulnerable in society as well as sometime being confrontational by saying that some things are just wrong. Racism, inequality, injustice, bullying are just some of the issues that trade unions have historically campaigned against and won many battles. Most of the time these things go unnoticed because all the work takes place in meetings such as the one I attended. Just another reason why everyone woman/man should not only join a union but also play an active role.
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