The second Executive Council meeting of Unite took place on Monday and Tuesday of this week. This was a fascinating meeting – different in many respects to the Amicus Executive that I’ve been a member of for the last four years.
I’ll be doing a detailed report on the meeting over the next few days.
For now, though, I wanted to highlight one important issue – a simmering fight across the two days of the Executive meeting, but with a really positive outcome.
Unions talk a lot about equalities, but aren’t always good at delivering. Women make up a greater proportion of the workforce than ever before – but Unite, as the UK’s largest union, still has less than 30% female membership. This partly reflects the industrial groups that the Union organises, of course – but also highlights a failure to organise women as effectively as we should.
The T&G – one of our predecessor unions – has had one of the best records in the union movement of serious targeted work to make the Union relevant to women, Black members, and LGBT members. There’s been some really good work done, and there’s no question the proportion of women and Black members has risen sharply. This hasn’t rippled through, though, to the elected committees in what is now Unite. Most of the lay bodies in the Union continue to be disproportionately dominated by white, heterosexual (and often middle-aged) men. There’s nothing wrong, of course, with being white, male, heterosexual or middle-aged – but this is hardly representative of the working class in 2008!
The T&G National Women’s Committee had sent a ‘remit’ – a resolution – to establish a dedicated Women, Race and Equalities Officer in each region of the Union. There was a massive row – but not the row I might have expected. When I became a trade unionist 25 years ago, any talk of equalities tended to be greeted with sneering remarks about ‘You’ll be wanting bisexual bicycle racks next’. If you were a woman, or Black, or disabled, or gay, you could be made to feel very unwelcome indeed just by having the temerity to attend a meeting. Even over the last few years, I’ve come across discriminatory attitudes that are painfully backward.
The arguments this week were a lot more positive than that. The proposal from Tony Woodley was for dedicated Equalities Organisers rather than dedicated Officers. Many T&G Executive members – men as well as women – were furious. They told me this meant reducing the status of the posts, and risked watering down the commitment to equalities. Women T&G Executive members told Tony Woodley, ‘We’re not having it’. Every time we got to the item on the agenda, it was deferred – while the fevered negotiations continued.
A deal was done, just before the close of business. I don’t claim to understand the detail of the disagreement, but T&G Executive members I respect told me that they’d got 90% of what they wanted, and a commitment to a future review of these posts. Work will progress now to establish these senior roles with a dedicated remit of organising women at work, promoting equalities in the bargaining agenda, and delivering better representation of women, Black and Asian members on our committees and at our conferences.
Unite has got off to a good start on equalities from a campaigning point of view. We did detailed work in defending abortion rights a couple of months ago. We funded the Love Music Hate Racism carnival. We gave high profile support to the demonstration against the BNP a few weeks back. This is important work. It sends a clear message to members and potential members about the Union we are, and the Union we aspire to be.
The other side of things is getting our structures and procedures and policies right. It was refreshing to see Executive Council members asserting their right to get the outcome they wanted. It was downright brilliant to see equalities treated as worth having a fight over.