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Muriel Browning

Women and the Trade Unions

Fight employers divisive tactics

(December 1974)

From Militant, No. 234, 6 December 1974, p. 3.
Transcribed by Iain Dalton.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The following is the text of a speech delivered at a Conference on Women’s Rights which took place recently in Cardiff. Muriel Browning is a TGWU shop steward at BLMC, Llanelli, and political education officer of Llanelli CLP.


How many times have we heard these profound statements repeated by both men and women? I don’t know how many of you saw Colin Welland’s play on television on Thursday night. If it didn’t do anything else, it at least helped to dispel the generalisation of women into the categories of apathy, backwardness and reaction.

The magnificent struggle of the women in the clothing manufacturing industry in Leeds in 1970 will surely go down in contemporary history as a classic example of how women can fight when they understand the issues.

Yet these women were still beaten by their own trade union – at least that time – but they have learned from their experience, just as the Ford women’s heroic struggle in 1968 set the pace for the struggle for equal pay and resulted in a spate of strikes by women in different industries.

I think it would be a good thing for us to consider and analyse my first statement of apathy, backwardness and reaction. Firstly, all these criticisms can be levelled at men also. But we must be honest and admit that they do apply more towards women. Then we must analyse the reasons and the causes, before we can hope to start to eliminate these, and fully emancipate women.

If we look back 60 years to the struggles of the suffragettes in Britain and elsewhere, we can see that there have been tremendous changes, both in women’s attitudes towards themselves. These changes have come about slowly. Until the last few years, the question of the liberation of women and their equality with men, has not really been taken seriously, either by politicians or by women themselves.

We are at this conference today discussing anti-discrimination and equality. Let me state my position at the outset. I do not believe that real equality for women is possible within the structure of this society – nor do I believe that full emancipation either for women or men is possible until this society is changed to a socialist society.

If we look at women’s role in this capitalist society we will understand why they are often backward and reactionary. Women, in the isolation of their homes are cut off from both men and other women in everyday working life, as well as from women in similar positions.

They tend to be backward, conservative and scared of any charge. The grind of making ends meet, meeting the exhausting demands of small children means that her chances of participating in social and political life are kept down to a minimum.

Because of this, she very often sees a militant trade unionist fighting for a pay increase as her enemy and as the cause of the price rises in the shops, instead of seeing their mutual enemy as the boss, who rules them both.

Whilst at home, women are bombarded with propaganda from both radio and television. Have you listened to Jimmy Young and the other disc jockeys patronisingly telling women what a grand job they are doing? After all the brainwashing of advertising, not only to sell their products, but at the same time to glorify the role of the housewife and mother in order to show what a rewarding job it is, plus the customs and traditions that have been handed down and instilled in us from the cradle, it is small wonder that when women do go back to work, they fell guilty, especially if it means leaving small children.

Then there is the increased difficulty of working an 8 hour day and continuing your other job of running a home. Those of us who are doing this will agree that there is little time for a working woman to play an active part in politics or in her trade union.

More often than not, when a women starts work, the second wage is essential for survival, so she is ripe for gross exploitation, particularly if it is in an industry where there is poor, or no, trade union organisation.

Even worse, if it is piece-work or a bonus job, women are usually determined to earn as much as possible in the time they are at their job.

This fact is usually grossly exploited. More and more, women at work are realising the need to organise in the respective trade unions, for example nurses, ancillary workers and even bunny girls! The absolute importance of all women at work being members of a trade union cannot be stressed enough. It is only by being organised that we can combat the discrimination that take place in the workshops.

Also important to remember is that we will belong to the same our organisations as the men in our respective industries. If there are no men working at our place of work, we could still be part of the same trade union as the men. Therefore we can play an active part in demanding that the trade union leadership conduct a vigorous campaign.

We must enlist the help of all the men we can, to defeat the bosses in their attempts at discrimination and dodging paying equal pay for work of equal value. Then we will see how docile women are!

It must be patiently explained to men that our fight is their fight. We must not isolate our case. There is a great inequality between men and men, in jobs that are graded so that they are kidded into believing that one job deserves a higher rate of pay.

Where there are women workers, their grades are usually consider to be always part of the lower grades. This only means bigger profits for the bosses.

Equal Pay

Now in industries – such as the car industry where I work – we will be on equal pay next year. We will have the problem of men on “unproductive” jobs being on lower rates of pay than the women “productive” workers.

Believe it or not, there is a feeling of guilt by quite a good percentage of the women! This shows how thoroughly we have been indoctrinated as to our secondary role in society. Also, the veiled threat that equal pay should include night shift working is being put forward by some of the men. Only this week, our management have issued a notice in one of our shops advertising for ten men for permanent night shift on block assembly. These are jobs that have always been done by women.

We have done these jobs on low pay over the years and we are not prepared to give them up now when we are going to get equal pay. The other danger we can see here is that as the young women leave the jobs to have babies, (unless we can force our firm to give maternity leave) they can be replaced by men who have already been trained while on night shift.

As more men will then be taken on to night shift, the company will eventually have enough operators to work a two-shift pattern, without the problem of changing the work pattern of the rest of the women in the plant who work only days.

Also, it is now going to be company policy not to employ women under the age of 25. Women in our plant are on full rate at the age of 18. Boys don’t get the full rate until the age of 20. So, as we see it, the intention is to employ youths to work women’s jobs so that they will be able to get 4 years cheap labour instead of only 2 years with the girls. This is where we can gain the support of the men again.

The women shop stewards in our plant intend organising with the other car plant in our town to resist Leyland’s attempt to reduce the number of women’s jobs in our plant, thus forcing young women in our area into badly paid small factories as the only alternative.

Night Work

We see it as very important that we get the make workforce backing us. We shall explain that shift work only benefits the bosses. It has a ruinous effect on health and family life, and it would be even worse for women who have the responsibility for running the home.

There are some places where night work is essential – in hospitals for example – where night work meets the needs of people. Patients sometimes die at night! Night work in factories only meets the needs of profit, however. Machines won’t suffer any pangs if turned off!

It must also be explained that there is nothing progressive about insisting that yet another section of workers accept the male norms, night work for example, that have been foisted on them over the years. This will, I hope, then start the men in our plant discussing the need to resist night shift also.

As much as we support all reforms and the struggle to achieve them, we must also be aware that these reforms can be taken away overnight, if those few who run this country in their own interests decide to do so.

A classic example was the 3 day week, with night shift and 12 hour working. In short this system is one where everything is subordinate and sacrificial to private property and profiteering.

The liberation of women forms an integral part of the whole social problem. The woman worker is a member of the exploited class, and, because of that, in striving for her liberation, she must before everything else fight for the liberation of her entire class, and in doing so she can look forward to complete equality in a truly classless society.

This would only be possible by the whole of the working class, the men and women who make up the majority of this country, owning and running things for themselves.

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