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Julie Waterson

Equal jobs and rights?

(March 1985)

From Socialist Worker Review, No. 74, March 1985, p. 24.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

THE RECENT case of sexual harassment in the London Fire Brigade has shown how difficult it is for women who choose to work in traditionally male dominated industries.

The case has also highlighted the inability of the Fire Brigades Union to fight for its members interests and has raised many questions and posed many problems for active trade unionists and socialists on the ground. More than this it has proved to be a sticky wicket for the left wing led Greater London Council.

Fire fighter Garry Langford was dismissed by the Fire Brigade last September for his degrading treatment of woman fire fighter, Lynne Gunning, a few months previously in the Soho station in London.

Every new recruit to the Fire Brigade is forced to go through a disgusting initiation ceremony. This usually involves the new fire fighter being tied to a ladder and doused with water. In Lynne Gunning’s case, it is alleged, she was tied to a ladder, had urine poured over her and suffered sexual abuse and indecent exposure.

The routine is degrading for all fire fighters – but particularly so for women. The number of women in the brigade in London could be counted on the fingers of one hand and the sexism of the majority of fire fighters is overwhelming.

This has caused problems for the GLC in implementing their equal opportunities programme, which states:

‘... that no job applicant or employee receives less favourable treatment on the grounds of sex, race, colour, nationality, ethnic or national origins, marital status, sexual orientation, age, trade union activity, political or religious beliefs.’

The failure to carry out this policy can result in disciplinary action against the employer and/or employee.

The GLC have been campaigning for more women to join the brigade. Posters and leaflets have been produced and the GLC produce a newspaper called Equals which is distributed to their employees arguing that there is a need for more representation in jobs for ethnic minorities, women etc.

Yet none of this has come to terms with the sexism of a male dominated fire brigade.

Garry Langford has been reinstated in his job in a decision taken by the Public Services and Fire Brigade Committee in January of this year. This committee deals with appeals and its decision has caused great embarrassment and anger in the GLC.

The GLC wanted Garry Langford sacked – they see his retaining his job as condoning the sexism of fire fighters. Many leading figures in the GLC, among them Ken Livingstone, are said to be furious at the final outcome. The votes on the committee were meant to be in favour of the man losing his job – but in the course of the hearing two of the Labour members changed their vote.

Among the two was Jenni Fletcher, the vice-chair of the GLC Women’s Committee. There is a lot of pressure, from various quarters but mainly from the feminists, for her to resign. And the Women’s Committee have mounted a token picket for one hour on the station in which Garry Langford is working in an attempt to get him out of the service.

The problems caused for the GLC over this case are a direct result of implementing policy from above. It is a result of being unable to change workers’ ideas by good deeds or decrees.

All socialists would like to see more women in male dominated jobs – on an equal basis. The disgusting way in which Lynne Gunning was treated – as a result she had to spend many months away from her work – has shown the bias and inequality that women suffer in these types of jobs. It is almost impossible for women to work on an equal basis with men when such a high level of prejudice exists. It is for that reason that workers should stand firm behind the principles of the GLC Women’s Committee. More women in the brigade and less sexism.

We have to add riders to this. The tragedy of the case is that it wasn’t dealt with within the structures of the FBU. That the circumstances and sympathies did not exist at a shopfloor level which allowed Garry Langford to be disciplined by his workmates.

This is because neither the FBU nor the GLC have had campaigns at a rank and file level which has confronted the dominant ideas of the majority of fire fighters. This has to be done by active trade unionists and socialists. It is not an easy task – it will mean standing against the stream, taking abuse and being branded as ‘strange’. The need to carry such a campaign is urgent. It has already started on a small scale in London when fire fighters built support for the miners by taking miners’ wives around the stations. This has started to break down the sexism by presenting women as they are – as part of the working class and as part of the fight to change the system.

Women workers

This work needs to be built on with a more general campaign at station level around the question of sexism. Local women trade unionists should be invited onto the stations to talk about the problems, and successes, of organising in a workplace.

Women should be invited to debate about the role of women in society – rape, abortion, sexuality, wife-battering, to name a few issues.

But we must recognise that abstract discussion can help to raise the issues but in itself does not convince people. To do that good militants should be attempting to involve fire fighters in activity. By supporting local pickets and activities when they arise, for example over the Gillick decision and the Powell Bill. By actively campaigning for solidarity with women trade unionists when in struggle. It will be by confronting their backward ideas in action that sexist fire fighters can be changed.

Only if this is done will we build an alternative to the tokenism of the GLC and the bureaucracy of the FBU and eventually create an atmosphere and attitude at station level which recognises women as workers and welcomes them as such.

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