From Socialist Voice, December 2010


One woman, one vote—or is it?

Recent debate in the media, and in the Irish Times in particular, has focused on positive discrimination in favour of female TDs in order to reflect the gender balance of the electorate within Leinster House. It is time for such a debate within the Irish trade union movement.
     To date the gender debate within trade unionism is often summed up by the statement that trade unions are “male, stale, and pale.” Whatever about “stale” and “pale,” trade unions are no longer the preserve of males. Statistical evidence from the Central Statistics Office demonstrates that the majority of union members in the Republic are female.1 In Britain in 2009, for the seventh consecutive year, female union membership has been higher than male membership.2 Yet women are under-represented in the leadership positions of trade unions.
     One way of combating this is positive discrimination. Many unions, as well as the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, already provide for this within their own rulebooks or constitutions. Such measures include reserved seats for women on executive councils as well as women’s committees and conferences.
     However, these measures are contentious, as their opponents argue that women trade unionists should see themselves as trade unionists first and as women second.3 Furthermore, such positive discrimination structures separate the very members it was originally intended to help, and reinforces the alleged inferiority.4 The beneficiaries of (for example) reserved seats for women on an executive council will be treated as second-rate representatives.5 Additionally, unions are meant to be for what unites workers, not what divides them.
     Finally, what about the issue of class, in that fragmenting the movement into sections such as women, race etc. only deals with symptoms of oppression and not the causes.6
     On the other side of the debate, a study of separate structures for women in British trade unions concludes that such structures allow unrepresented constituencies to come together in a “safe” environment to develop their own priorities and agendas and to feed them back into the mainstream movement.7 However, such structures can be mere tokenism in order to ghettoise “female” issues away from the main business of “real” trade unionism.
     While the growth of such separate structures within the trade union movement is well accepted, the debate surrounding them remains controversial among male and female members alike.
     It is a debate that cannot be ignored, not least given that the majority of union members are female and that this is not reflected in the power structures of trade unions. The argument that all members have a level playing pitch for participation and influence does not stand up to scrutiny.
     The absence of direct discrimination against women does not automatically demonstrate an absence of bias. A legal definition of discrimination, and one accepted by the Labour Court, is that discrimination arises when one treats “either similar situations differently or different situations identically.”8 For example, in cases such as a right to equal pay, two workers of different sex doing equal work (similar situation) being paid different wages (treated differently because of their sex) is discrimination. Or an employer refusing unreasonably to modify a work-place to accommodate potential or actual employees with a disability is treating different situations identically and so can be considered discriminatory.
     For women, therefore, to show that they are in a different situation and should therefore not be treated in an identical fashion when it comes to union participation and activity depends on establishing that as a constituency they are different. One supporter of such an argument was Lenin, who in 1913 wrote about workers and their families. He contended that “millions upon millions of women in such families live (or, rather, exist) as ‘domestic slaves,’ striving to feed and clothe their family on pennies, at the cost of desperate daily effort and ‘saving’ on everything—except their own labour.”9
     Of course today it is argued that women are now equal, because of universal suffrage, the feminist movement, equality legislation, equal education, etc.; therefore the unions do not have to adjust their structures, as society has levelled the playing pitch. But has the plight of women really improved since Lenin proclaimed that “present-day capitalist society conceals within itself numerous cases of poverty and oppression that do not immediately strike the eye”?10
     Today such hidden factors remain but are conveniently ignored to suit the status quo. The acclaimed sociologist Judy Wajcman cites research that “has repeatedly confirmed that, for all men’s protestation about aspiring to an egalitarian marital partnership, on average, wives still do approximately two-thirds of unpaid domestic work.”11 Of course it is possible that other peer-reviewed academic research could oppose such findings, by arguing the subjective nature in measuring the share of unpaid domestic work.
     A more objective distinction of the differences between the sexes states that “physically, women’s life experience differs from that of men . . . women have a bodily experience of conception, pregnancy, childbirth, lactation, menstruation and menopause that men do not.”12 Consequently, if women are arguable burdened with an unfair share of domestic duties in the home, and have different bodily experiences, the question for the trade union movement and society in general is, Does the alleged level playing field discriminate against women?
     As mentioned above, this debate is contentious, but that should not be a reason for avoiding it.

     1. Central Statistics Office, Quarterly National Household Survey: Union Membership, Q2, 2007, Dublin: CSO, 2008.
     2. Craig Barratt, Trade Union Membership, 2008, London: Statistics Authority, Department for Business, Enterprise, and Regulatory Reform, 2009.
     3. John McIlory, Trade Unions in Britain Today, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995.
     4. John McIlory, Trade Unions in Britain Today.
     5. John McIlory, Trade Unions in Britain Today.
     6. John McIlory, Trade Unions in Britain Today.
     7. Gill Kirton, The Making of Women Trade Unionists, Farnham (Surrey): Ashgate Publishing, 2006.
     8. European Court of Justice, stated in Re Electrical Refrigerators (1963) 2 CMLR 289 at 312
     9. V. I. Lenin, “Capitalism and female labour,” Pravda, no. 102 (5 May 1913), at
     10. V. I. Lenin, “Capitalism and female labour,” Pravda, no. 102 (5 May 1913).
     11. Judy Wajcman, “Feminism facing industrial relations in Britain,” British Journal of Industrial Relations, 38:2 (June 2000).
     12. Cynthia Cockburn, Strategies for Gender Democracy: Women and the European Social Dialogue, Luxembourg: Office of Official Publications of the European Communities, 1996.

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