A woman’s place is in her union

When Frances O’Grady takes over as TUC General Secretary in January it will be the first time in its 144 year history that the TUC is led by a woman. Clare Murphy looks at some of the issues facing women activists in trade unions today.

The election of the British labour movement’s first woman General Secretary comes at a time when women are bearing the brunt of the recession and the Coalition Government’s austerity measures and women’s rights in the workforce and wider society are under unprecedented attack from a vicious Tory Government that is intent on doing to the public sector what Thatcher did to the private sector and the former state utilities – slash jobs, attack wages and conditions and privatise services.

In March The Fawcett Society, which campaigns for equality between women and men, published a detailed analysis which highlighted how deficit-reduction measures are hitting women in three key ways:
• Women are being hit hardest by job cuts in the public sector;
• Women are most affected as the services and benefits they use more are cut; and
• Women are being left ‘filling the gaps’ as state services are withdrawn.

Employment Prospects

The 2010 Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) announced £34 billion in cuts to funding for public services by 2012-13. Some 270,000 posts were cut from the public sector payroll last year and the Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that almost three quarters of a million public sector jobs will be axed by 2017, reducing the public sector workforce by almost seven per cent.

Women’s unemployment – at 1.1 million – is at its highest rate for 25 years and with women more dependent on jobs in the public sector, their position in the labour market is precarious.

Just under 40 per cent of women’s jobs nationally are in the public sector compared to 15 per cent of men’s. Women make up two thirds of the public sector workforce overall but in some regions, such as NE Lincolnshire, account for up to three quarters of the workforce and they form even larger proportions of some public services. For example, women hold three quarters of all jobs in local government, 77 per cent of NHS posts, 80 per cent of jobs in adult social care and 82 per cent of education posts. Not surprising then that the Institute of Personnel Development has predicted that 80 per cent of jobs lost in the public sector through the Coalition’s austerity measures will be women’s.

The public services have traditionally been at the forefront of anti-discrimination employment policies and practices so these cuts will particularly impact on older, BME and disabled women. Older women are particular vulnerable to redundancy and just 60 per cent of women aged 50-64 are in work compared to 72 per cent of men in this age group.

Even where jobs remain, the privatisation of public services is resulting in cuts in pay and pension entitlements, undermining staff terms and conditions and damaging service quality. This both impacts on women’s jobs and on women as carers. Women use public services twice as much as men it still largely falls on women to prop up the welfare state when services are axed or cut back.


Over 40 years after the introduction of the Equal Pay Act, women continue to earn on average 22 per cent a week less than men with the full-time pay gap standing at 15 per cent.

Austerity measures that attack women’s earnings not only undermine their progress towards equal pay but represent an assault on the low paid and will drive millions more women and families into poverty.
If you’re a woman you are more likely to be poor; if you’re also Black, disabled and/or a lone parent then the likelihood that you are living in poverty is even higher. Almost two-thirds of low paid workers are women; 40 per cent of ethnic minority women live in poverty; families with at least one disabled member are 30 per cent more likely to live in poverty than other families; and 92 per cent of lone parents – a group twice as likely than two parent families to live below the poverty line – are women.
Following a two-year public sector pay freeze workers are now enduring a further two years with average increases capped at one per cent. The combination of pay freezes, pay caps and pension contribution increases will see public sector workers taking an average 16 per cent real terms wage cut by 2015, according to the TUC, with women hit women more than twice as hard as men.

On top of this comes the spectre of regional pay. The ending of national pay bargaining and pay determination for tens of thousands of public sector employees will impact most heavily on women as a whole and women in low-wage areas of the country in particular since the current national pay arrangements have been designed with a focus on the need to deliver equal pay.

Furthermore, cutting public sector wages in the poorer parts of the UK will make it more difficult to staff services in those areas and is likely to exacerbate regional inequalities in service provision in areas with the highest levels of need.


Women’s average personal pensions are just 62 per cent of the average for men. Two-thirds of pensioners living in poverty are women with the average pension for a woman working in local government standing at just £60 per week.

Public sector pension cuts will hit women hard – UNISON estimates that 3.7 million women will be negatively affected by the changes.

For example, a 45 year old woman London teacher at the top of the main scale with 20 years in the pension scheme would need to pay in over £70 a month more and work until 67 instead of aged 60 to receive her pension, which would then be worth over £88,000 less over a 25 year retirement period.

Welfare budget cuts

The CSR also announced £18 billion worth of welfare budget cuts including to key benefits such as Housing Benefit, Child Benefit, disability benefits and tax credits.

Research for the TUC shows that pregnant women, lone parents, and single pensioners – 73% of whom are women – will bear the brunt of cuts with female lone parents set to lose 18.5 per cent of their net income and female single pensioners 11.7 per cent.

Employment Rights

Under the guise of cutting burdens on business” and “doing away with unnecessary red tape”, the Government is launching as series of assaults on workplace rights.
Again women workers will suffer most since they are most likely to work part-time hours which may put them below the threshold for legal protection, fall foul of discrimination by employers seeking to avoid maternity and parental leave costs and be most likely to have breaks in their careers for caring responsibilities which prevent them building up length of service for pay and pension benefits and employment protections.

Women at the Top

Frances O’Grady joins a growing number of women assuming the leadership of the trade union movement. In all, 22 of the TUC’s 55 affiliated unions are now led by women including four of the ten largest unions – education unions the NUT, NASUWT, ATL and UCU – and two medium-sized unions – the NUJ and Equity. Gradually the composition of union executive bodies is also shifting with increasing numbers of women on the key union decision-making bodies.

The combined impact of the recession and the Government’s austerity measures mean these new women leaders face major challenges. A key one will be reversing the decline in trade union membership, no small matter in the current economic and political climate.

One of the target groups has to be young workers, with under 25s currently accounting for just five per cent of union members. Young people have seen their education and job prospects blighted by policies such as the abolition of the EMA, university fee rises, the downgrading of GCSE results which meant tens of thousands of young people were unable to move on to post-16 education or training and austerity measures which have radically reduced their job prospects.

A further challenge will be maintaining worker unity against the Government’s onslaught. Initiatives such as the joint campaign of industrial action short of strike action by the NUT and NASUWT teachers’ unions’ to defend pay and working conditions is a welcome step in the direction of professional unity for the teaching profession.

Strength in the Union

Despite the bleak outlook there are some positive developments for women workers. Female union density has held up and women are radicalising and becoming increasingly militant.

At a time when union density overall has declined from around a third of workers to just over a quarter since 1995, the density of women workers has remained higher than for men for the tenth successive year at 28.7 per cent and 23.4 per cent respectively in 2011.

Women workers are recognising that the benefits of union membership are even greater for women than they are for men. The pay premium for unionised workers has continued to grow despite the recession and stands at 18.0 per cent for the women-dominated public sector, compared with 8.0 per cent for the private sector.

Workers have demonstrated that despite hard times they are increasingly willing to strike in defence of hard won pay, pensions, conditions and legal rights. Last year 1.39 million working days were lost in 149 strikes and other industrial disputes – the highest since 1990. The public sector accounted for 92% of days’ lost with the national dispute over pensions accounting for the bulk of these.

These disputes have radicalised workers, particularly in many of the white-collar professional and women-dominated sectors such as teaching where in the past some have been reluctant to take action The NUT, for example, saw its membership figures increase by five per cent last year on the back of its leading role in the pension dispute. With a membership that is 80 per cent women, this is a hugely significant development and demonstrates the potential for women workers leading the fight back against austerity policies.

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