Thursday, August 12, 2010

Organising Against Sexism and Harrassment at Work

I'm cross-posting this from the Workers' Liberty website because it seems like a Stroppy kind of thing ...

Author: Jean Lane

The following is an edited transcript of a speech given at an AWL North East London branch meeting in August 2010. The transcript covers both Jean's initial speech and her response to a subsequent discussion. For reasons of time, the questions and contributions from other attendees of the meeting have not been transcribed.

It's my 25th anniversary of doing a really shit job! Our organisation produced a pamphlet about it at the time. It was actually a series of articles that were printed in our paper; much later on we put them together and produced the pamphlet. The articles themselves were written some months after the event, because for a long time afterwards I couldn't even talk about it. It was awful. To try and talk to anyone about it was absolutely impossible because I was so emotionally effected by it.

Some time afterwards, there was a programme on TV which was about a woman firefighter. One of the episodes was about the woman suffering sexual harassment at the hands of her male colleagues, and I couldn't watch it. They were using the episode to say that harassment of women at work was unacceptable, but I still couldn't watch it. Emotionally the effect of my experience in this job was really quite hard.

After we produced the pamphlet, the organisation (which was at that time called Socialist Organiser) did a lot of meetings around the country, both in towns and on university campuses, about the issues. They were really big meetings. I don't know what it was, but something just touched a spark with people. It was about personal experience rather than the heavy-duty theory we usually do. It was obviously a personal experience that a lot of people related to. There wasn't a single meeting we did at that time which didn't bring up huge numbers of horror stories that women in the work were going to. I thought my experience was bad, but to be honest it was nothing compared to some of the experiences we heard in those meetings. These were women who'd never spoken out before and they had absolute horror stories. For instance, one of the meetings – which was at Lol Duffy's election campaign in Liverpool – had stories about women who worked in shops being physically abused away from the counter, women who worked in offices being abused... The actual level of abuse that those women were receiving was far worse than what I experienced in a job where you could reasonably expect the level of harassment, because of the nature of the job and the workforce, to be of its worst kind. I was shocked to find out the extent of it and to find out that it wasn't just about working in an all-male environment; it was about working anywhere at all.

I was working as a labourer on a building site. It was a one-year job, designed to get unemployed people off the dole for a short while. It was in Coventry, and there were lots of unemployed engineers and car-workers. It was designed to help those people get back into the habit of employment, and to give them a year's worth of wages and employment to kick them back into the world of work again. So the people I was working with were people who'd been in the industry for 25 or 30 years in some cases, and had become long-term unemployed without much hope of getting another job.

Because of the actions and behaviour of one man in particular, my experience of working there was absolutely dreadful. There was no physical harassment; it was all verbal, and all specifically designed to make you feel worthless and like you had no right to be working there. The intention behind it, quite explicitly in the end, was to drive me out. “This is a man's job.” It was constant. It was every day. It was relentless.

By the time I started that job I had already been a revolutionary socialist for quite a few years, and had been a feminist for all of that time. I thought I could handle most things, but I was crushed by that experience. The effects of it were to make me ill. I was on pills, unable to sleep, depressed. This went on for several months. So although it wasn't direct physical abuse, the effect of it – especially if you multiply it out across all the women it happened to – in terms of a woman's actual right to work is absolutely huge.

In the end the problem was dealt with by me persuading one of the men that what was happening was unacceptable, and then him persuading the other men of that, and them threatening to kick the shit out of the perpetrator if he didn't stop it. And that's what dealt with it. He left before I did, and at the point my whole working life changed for the better. Partly that was because he was gone, but partly it was because of the discussions I was able to have with the other men.

At the time this was happening to me and who knows how many other women workers, there was legislation in place against sexual harassment. The Sex Discrimination Act had been around for more than 10 years, although that act itself didn't deal directly with sexual harassment at work. It dealt with issues of discrimination in terms of having a job, getting training and getting promotion on the basis that you were a woman. It was amendments to the act that came out later than added paragraphs about sexual harassment at work – what it is, what it means, what you can do about it and the fact that it's illegal!

Although the sexual harassment side of things hadn't been particularly dealt with legally at the time I was going through my experience, the TUC already had guidelines for union activists and indeed employers about women's right to work and about sexual harassment at work. So there were already things that people could use. When I did eventually persuade one of the men in my workplace that sexual harassment was unacceptable, I was able to show him printed materials that showed that it wasn't just about me but was something was nationally recognised and widespread. One of the things that persuaded this man that was was happening to me was unacceptable was the fact that he had three daughters; when you looked at the statistics about what happened to women at work and in society generally, he worked out that there was a very good chance that one of his three daughters would suffer what I'd been going through and probably worse. He initially though it was a joke. But when I showed him written stuff from the unions and from government commissions, that legitimised it in his mind as a real issue.

On a personal level, it effects not only your immediate health but your ability to work. It effects your right to work, because people leave. They can't stand it for too long. The changes that have been made over the last 25 years have, I think, been genuine attempts to deal with the situation and put a proper definition of what sexual harassment is on the statute books. But of course if you're the woman in the workplace, unless you've got this lovely glossy policy wrapped round a brick when you're being given a hard time then it actually doesn't help you in an immediate sense. It does help you, and it helps the unions, in the sense that it highlights it as a problem and educates people. It changes perceptions and expectations about what's acceptable and what's not, and how they feel they should be treated at work. The fact that there's legislation gives the union a springboard to negotiate. On a certain level it's absolutely essential, but on an immediate personal level in the day-to-day workplace it doesn't help you.

The Sex Discrimination Act is only one of the acts that's changed the experience of women's employment over the last 30 years. That legislation has made a difference; they have been important developments for working women, and I think they're worth defending. Those are the very sorts of things that are going to be under threat when it comes to how the recession is going to effect women at work.

The workforce has changed since that legislation. Far more women are at work now than there were 30 years ago; that's a good development as far as socialists are concerned, because you can't fight a working-class revolution with only half the working class organised! You've got to organise the class as a whole to raise the consciousness to want to change society, and who better than those who've been worst treated by society to want to change it?

But there are problems too. Women are often working part-time, mainly because of childcare responsibilities and needing shorter hours. Of all women in the workplace, 45% are part-time compared to 11% of men. The wages of part-time jobs are far lower, largely because of where those jobs are concentrated: they're in cleaning, they're in catering, they're in care assistance, they're in shop-work. Those are the places were women employees predominate and where low-pay predominates.

The women who fought for and won a lot of that body of legislation were working-class women who were socialist-feminists, who took on the experiences of the Ford women whose strike was the basis of the Equal Pay Act. An awful lot of those women fought to get a voice for women in the unions; that was absolutely essential. The vast majority of them ended up becoming reformists with a few notable exceptions, Pat Longman being one of them.

Pat was part of all of those movements; she was around at the time strikes were going on for equal pay, at the time when the National Abortion Campaign was a huge organisation building massive conferences and demonstrations. It's because of those women that the labour movement got changed and legislation got changed. But largely they did become reformists. I remember going to Labour Party conferences when Labour had been in opposition for years, and those women were saying “we can't make any changes until we win power.” Those arguments were used to justify voting for right-wing women over left-wing men within the Labour Party. There were only a few notable exceptions who didn't get sucked into all of that. However the advances that were fought for were absolutely right; sexual harassment is one of the issues that effects women at work, and if we either only rely on legislation or allow it to be dismissed then it's only going to get worse.

The recession is going to effect the number of women at work. In the last recession it was men who were thrown out of work by manufacturing going down the drain – exactly the sort of men who ended up working tin-pot, part-time jobs on building sites because industry collapsed. In this recession huge numbers of women face redundancy because it's local government, healthcare and other areas with large numbers of women workers that are under attack.

I see it as a Unison rep for education workers on a very regular basis where school managements just decide “I'm not having part-time workers any more; full-time or nothing – take your pick.” For an awful lot of women that means “nothing”, because you can't afford to raise your kids on part-time wages and unfortunately the burden of domestic responsibility does still fall almost entirely on women. So an awful lot of things are going to start going backwards unless we organise. We have the experience of what's been done in the past, and what's not been enough. So – legislation yes, but beyond that we have to organise women workers to defend what we've got and take it further, because it's going to be under attack.

In the late 70s and early 80s, the labour movement was very male dominated, even in those industries with a lot of women workers. It wasn't that the leadership of the unions were overwhelmingly men – they were 100% men. The leaders were men, the reps were men, the organisers were men. They were men and they were white and they were bureaucrats. By and large they were right-wing, and they dominated Labour Party policy by wielding the bloc vote at Labour Party conference at a time when conference actually meant something before it was shut down by Kinnock and Blair.

We set up Women's Fightback, which was socialist-feminist in its politics but intended to be broad and open. The purpose of it was to build a bridge between the women's movement and the labour movement. It aimed to get those socialist-feminist ideas into the labour movement, because we recognised that if we want to change society then women must be organised and if we want women's liberation then society must be changed! And we knew that because only the working class can change society, we had to change the labour movement. That's how our organisation saw our task at that time.

The women's sections in the Labour Party in the 1970s were councillors' wives, and they made tea. They made tea while their men talked to constituents and did the “real” work. What happened in the late 70s was that women went in consciously, as groups, and there were big faction fights between old women and young women and took them over! We started voting for Benn in the leadership campaign, voting to support Bobby Sands, voting to ban the bomb... all these right-wing councillors' wives were horrified. They were big political battles.

There were battles going on all over the place at that time. My experience on the building site was just one experience. Before that I'd worked for the post office, and we had union activists sticking pornographic stuff up on the noticeboards! Their general behaviour towards women workers was not good. The battle was to be had within the union sometimes even more than with management. They were essential battles.

The Grunwick dispute was one of the first times when the whole labour movement rallied in solidarity with women workers. They were on strike for a year for union recognition and were almost 100% Asian. You could go on their picket line and see battalions of seamen, engineers and car-workers marching down the street to support them and you'd overhear white male workers saying things like “that Paki woman could never have attacked that copper!” That language was natural to them. Racism and sexism was absolutely accepted and unquestioned until, as a result of women and black people being in the workplace and organising, the contradictions got raised in people's minds.

There were very, very few women in the building industry when I was going through my experience. Of those that were, very few were unskilled, unqualified labourers like me. If they got in at all they went in with a specific skill, like an electrician for example. I'm sure their treatment was no better but they probably had slightly better standing because they had essential skills.

One of the most telling examples of women going into a male-dominated workforce and changing it for the better is American women miners. In the 70s and 80s women went to work in the mines in places like Kentucky and won massive campaigns around health and safety. Men had been putting up with really shoddy working conditions where people were maimed and killed and the women just said “we're not putting up with this.” They fought for some health and safety legislation and won it. They were changing minds and also changing people's direct working experience.

People have asked me whether I took the job with a specific intention of having a go politically. The reason I've ever taken any job has been to organise. All I've ever done in my workplaces has been to become the union rep, organise meetings and have political discussions. I would've done that on the site if I'd had the chance. There were other women who did the same; there was a woman in the IMG who took a job on the tube, and there was “Red Steph” in the car industry. She became nationally famous for a while for organising at Cowley.

On the pamphlet itself, I think there's always a place for literature that just says what it's like. We don't always have to have all the answers. Sometimes it's right to just describe and say what working-class people's live are like. That can be an education in itself. People recognise themselves, and that changes you. It's a good thing for socialists to do.

The unions today would deal with an issue like this as an individual question. They'd say “let's sue” rather than trying to collectivise the issue and use it to organise. That's as big a battle as we're facing today. As we were saying, legislation is good, but is it enough? The thing that's missing is the collective organisation and the action at a rank-and-file level. You might win an individual case in the courts but as long as the capitalist state exists then they can take whatever you win back off you again. All the glossy pamphlets and policy documents aren't going to help us win; we're only going to win with collective action.