Thursday, March 27, 2008

RMT Women's Conference report

A couple of weekends ago, it was my great pleasure to chair the largest ever RMT women's conference.

35 delegates from around Britain gathered in Swansea to discuss the issues facing women rail and transport workers. Now, 35 may not seem many to members of big unions with loads of women members and a good tradition of women's organisation. But RMT has 75,000 members, only 11% of whom are women, and a quick bit of mental arithmetic tells me that 1 in 250 of our women members were at the conference. Which aint bad.

I'd like to be able to claim that our union has a strong commitment and impressive tradition of involving women, but that just wouldn't be true. The National Executive is all-male, and has only ever had two women members. All union officers are male, and always have been. The truth is that recent increases in women's involvement have come from the hard work of women activists, which has finally pushed the union bureaucracy into making more of an effort too.

The key to this has been taking up issues facing women in the workplaces. This was reflected in the discussions at the conference. We kicked off with a plenary discussion about the effects on privatisation on women, a subject on which many women delegates had the confidence and knowledge to speak. Their contributions ranged from long-standing women activists describing the nightmare of going through rail privatisation and the failure of the union to defeat it; to more recent stories of re-franchising and contracting out and the disastrous effects on women's working conditions.

Smaller, 'workshop' discussions included issues such as women's uniforms, maternity rights, sexual harassment and abortion rights; and more practical skills such as being an effective union rep and health & safety campaigning.

A particular highlight on the second day was a presentation by two delegates who work as cleaners on London Underground. They described in depth and with passion the appalling conditions which their employers impose on them, and the potential power of an all-grades transport union to improve their conditions and give them dignity. We also had guest speakers from PCS, the Welsh Assembly and local MP Sian Davies.

The conference passed resolutions on short-notice duty changes, and how these play havoc with workers' lives, especially those of us with caring responsibilities; pregnancy and health & safety; pregnant workers and rest facilities; and abortion rights. The first and third of these resolutions will be submitted to this year's RMT AGM in June.

And finally, thanks to our Vice Chair, Mandy, for organising a splendid social on the Friday evening, capping an excellent and productive conference for all concerned. Having been re-elected as Chair for another year, I look forward to an even bigger and better conference in Newcastle next year.

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