WOMEN in work have come a long way since the match workers’ strike at the Bryant and May factory in 1888 over working conditions and pay.
That strike was one of the first examples of women organising themselves to establish rights in the workplace and had a huge impact on what is now the women’s trade union movement across the UK. In 2012, nearly 125 years later, we are seeing Scottish women hold their 85th annual Trade Union Conference, which starts today.
Women in Scotland have a strong presence in trade union history and the Scottish Trades Union Congress has had a Women’s Committee since 1927. At the time, it must have seemed like a real coup for female workers to be included in what was really an organisation for men. But then as now, the formation of sub-groups and separate conferences shows that equality still eludes us and the issues affecting women (and black and disabled workers) are either not important enough, or too numerous to be dealt with by the main part of the union.
Yet, we have made great strides towards equality. The motions at this year’s STUC women’s conference would not be recognisable to the Bryant and May workers: being more about improving the lives of working women as oppose to preventing work from killing or impoverishing them.
The motions to be debated in Perth today and tomorrow include women’s mental health, child care, menopause and the Westminster government’s cuts to the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s budget. It is a conference that highlights issues that couldn’t have been foreseen at the time of the first conference in 1927.
But how far have we really come? The defence secretary, Philip Hammond, last week made an announcement about increasing the size of the Territorial Army and renaming it the Army Reservists. With savage cuts to the army itself, it follows that these Reservists will be deployed far more frequently than members of the TA are now.
This leaves employers in a difficult situation with businesses still to run, but with employees heading off for long tours of duty. But Mr Hammond will introduce a kite mark system to highlight the businesses that support the defence of the UK and also financial compensation for employers. When was that ever done for businesses supporting women taking time off to have children?
Is our society still so macho and male dominated that we are saying it is more important to support people to go to war than to have children; and that mothers don’t deserve the same support as members of the male dominated TA? Or is it that government just fails to see the contradictions in their proposals?
Either way, it shows that society remains narrow-minded, choosing to discriminate along the boundaries of gender (and other differences) and not seeing how much more productive it would be to favour people of talent and those prepared to contribute.
We still need the Women’s Committee.