The women putting female empowerment on the union agenda

"People sort of insinuate, 'Well, you're a woman...' Yeah, well, watch this space. We get a lot done, women."

Women working in care, catering, cleaning, cashier and clerical jobs (the 5 Cs) have long been neglected in trade unions and politics. Their jobs are seen as ‘extras’ – helping other people be fed, and cared for, so they can do their ‘proper’ work.

Laura, Joanne, Grace, Catherine, and Martha are women you wouldn't want to mess with. They're members of the Women's Network, a support group in the North West and Irish region of the British trade union GMB.  They believe that there's still a lot left to be done to protect women workers – and they won't stop til they've helped achieve it.

From protests surrounding low pay in the 'gig economy', to sexual harassment cases filed against some of America's biggest companies, it's looking like we've still got a lot of work to do on workers rights. And for these women, that means unions are back on the agenda.

Traditionally, unions have been white, male, blue-collar worker-dominated spaces, but things are changing. More and more unions are setting up support groups for women and other underrepresented identities in unions, from LGBTQ and BME people to those working in under-represented industries, or in part-time positions.

Here's what the women from the Network had to say about why women need to be in unions, how to join one, and why language shouldn’t be a barrier to getting involved in politics – ”all you need is the fire in your belly...”

Why women need to be in unions

Laura: “We want what the men have. We want respect.

Access to justice is one of our big sellers as a trade union. We’ve got solicitors who can say, ‘You’ve got a case, and we’ll go for it for you.’ And that’s covered by your few pounds a month. Access to justice… take that away from us and we’re stuffed. Absolutely stuffed.”

I’ve got a girl who works with me, Sarah. She’s 39, and she’s riddled with rheumatoid arthritis. So I make sure she gets two days off, I make sure she gets her hospital appointments, her blood tests, all that off. She doesn’t want to stop work – she’s only 39. You’ve got to look after people, you know. Someone’s got to fight people’s corners.

My first thing about the equal pay question was that the cleaners – or at least that’s what they were called – were doing a lot more than just cleaning. They were doing table service, they were doing food prep… and I thought, this isn’t fair.

We did the equal pay claims against the city council, and we won, because cleaners were considered to be using the same skillset as a gardener, a park keeper, [but weren’t being paid the same amount]. So we got upgraded another level. But if the trade union hadn’t been there, that would never have happened.”

Taking the first step: “You don’t have time to get nervous.”

Laura: “You don’t have time to get nervous. The first one I did was for International Women’s Day. I just went in the door and the head of the union in the region said, “You’re sitting over there,” and I just went, “Where? Where?” and he went, “There,” and pointed at the chairperson’s seat. And I didn’t know anything about the speakers, so I was just browsing the internet while everyone was having a brew. But it was good, and since then I’ve not looked back really.”

Joanne: “I had my own branch at one time, but I’ve actually got a memory problem now. I used to be very active. It became my life, you know? And I had three kids, but everything worked around the union.

I’ve been nearly fighting with someone on many occasions, but people will sort of insinuate, “Well, you’re a woman…” Well, yeah. Watch this space. We get a lot done, women. I’m really proud of our reps, proud of them all.”

Laura: “Of course we do. There’s nothing worse than a load of angry people at your door, banging on your door every Monday morning.”

Joanne: “Especially women!”

Grace: "I’m a senior organiser. I became involved in the the union 28 years ago. We were having a really tough time at work, and I didn’t think the trade union were doing anything for us at the time. So I got round a load of women, went to see the officer, and said, ‘Why don’t you organise a mass meeting?’ He said, “Well if you’re so clever, why don’t you organise it?’ So I did!

There were no senior female figures mentoring people in the union. I was lucky, I had some really good mentors, but they were all men. I see my role and the role of women in the union to mentor other women, and bring them in.”

“Language in politics can bamboozle… all you need is the fire in your belly”

Catherine: “Language in politics can bamboozle. It’ll make ‘ordinary’ people – though I hate using the word ordinary, nobody’s ordinary – feel like politics isn’t for them. It’s striking, coming into a situation where people are well educated and they know a lot about politics, and you feel like you just can’t articulate things like they do.”

Martha: “But you know more about life than they do.”

Catherine: “That’s it – the Women’s Network is about letting women know that that’s all we need. We don’t need to come from universities or colleges or do degrees or diplomas. All we need is to be part of something, and fight for what we believe in… that’s all we need.”

Martha: “I know recently I have real beef talking to people about getting into politics, because they say, ‘I don’t know the language, I’m not articulate enough.’ I say it’s not about that, it doesn’t matter. If you’re passionate enough, it doesn’t matter how many fancy words you know. It’s the opposite. You’ve got to speak in a language people understand. If you’ve got the fire in your belly, that’s what’s relevant. And I actually think that’s why people look at politicians and think, ‘I don’t get it…’ Just because they’ve swallowed a thesaurus, doesn’t mean they know any more than you do!”

Zero-hours contracts, young people, and the future of unions

Laura: "Unions need to gain popularity with young people. Our membership’s increasing, it’s increasing with women, and again it’s just a case of getting the message out there. It’s making sure that youngsters actually know what trade unions are, that we’re not troublemakers, we’re there to protect you, to watch your back."

Joanne: "With all these zero-hours contracts, sometimes people aren’t even earning enough to pay union membership. They’re sort of whittling people down. Our membership used to just come out of our wages so we didn’t even think about it."

Laura: "But they’re taking away people’s safety nets. Social security, you know, and disability allowance and things. We know some people are in terrible states because they don’t have enough to pay their rent. So what do you do? You apply for a rebate, and then you find out you’re not entitled to it anymore. It’s scary. But with the input we’re getting now from young people, I think we’ll get stronger.”

Martha: “Being a woman… they think you’re kinder. My branch secretary calls me his ‘stealth missile’, because they think I’ll be all nice and quiet and agree with everything. And then they think, “Oh – she’s not quite as nice as we thought.” [Smiles]

*These names have been changed.

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  • Macrocompassion

    Look to who owns the land of Greece and why they are not using it properly!

    Discover how much the value of the land is being speculated in by holding it unused and the resulting lack of opportunity. Why can’t small scale farmers begin their own production of farm produce and the selling of it to local suppliers for domestic consumption?

    Adam Smith (“Wealth of Nations”,
    1776) says that land is one of the 3 factors of production (the other 2 being
    labor and durable capital goods). The usefulness of land is in the price that
    tenants pay as rent, for access rights to the particular site in question. Land
    is often considered as being a form of capital, since it is traded similarly to
    other durable capital goods items. However it is not actually man-made, so rightly
    it does not fall within this category. The land was originally a gift of nature
    (if not of God) for which all people should be free to share in its use. But its
    site-value greatly depends on location and is related to the community density
    in that region, as well as the natural resources such as rivers, minerals,
    animals or plants of specific use or beauty, when or after it is possible to reach them. Consequently,
    most of the land value is created by man within his society and therefore its
    advantage should logically and ethically be returned to the community for its
    general use, as explained by Martin Adams (in “LAND”, 2015).

    However, due to our existing laws, land is owned and formally registered and its
    value is traded, even though it can’t be moved to another place, like other
    kinds of capital goods. This right of ownership gives the landlord a big
    advantage over the rest of the community because he determines how it may be
    used, or if it is to be held out of use, until the city grows and the site
    becomes more valuable. Thus speculation in land values is encouraged by the law,
    in treating a site of land as personal or private property—as if it were an
    item of capital goods, although it is not (Mason Gaffney and Fred Harrison:
    “The Corruption of Economics”, 2005).

    Regarding taxation and local community spending, the municipal taxes we pay are
    partly used for improving the infrastructure. This means that the land becomes
    more useful and valuable without the landlord doing anything—he/she will always
    benefit from our present tax regime. This also applies when the status of unused
    land is upgraded and it becomes fit for community development. Then when this
    news is leaked, after landlords and banks corruptly pay for this information,
    speculation in land values is rife. There are many advantages if the land
    values were taxed instead of the many different kinds of production-based
    activities such as earnings, purchases, capital gains, home and foreign company
    investments, etc., (with all their regulations, complications and loop-holes).
    The only people due to lose from this are those who exploit the growing values
    of the land over the past years, when “mere” land ownership confers a financial
    benefit, without the owner doing a scrap of work. Consequently, for a truly
    socially just kind of taxation to apply there can only be one
    method–Land-Value Taxation.

    Consider how land becomes
    valuable. New settlers in a region begin to specialize and this improves their
    efficiency in producing specific goods. The central land is the most valuable
    due to easy availability and least transport needed. This distribution in land
    values is created by the community and (after an initial start), not by the
    natural resources. As the city expands, speculators in land values will
    deliberately hold potentially useful sites out of use, until planning and
    development have permitted their values to grow. Meanwhile there is fierce
    competition for access to the most suitable sites for housing, agriculture and
    manufacturing industries. The limited availability of useful land means that the
    high rents paid by tenants make their residence more costly and the provision
    of goods and services more expensive. It also creates unemployment, causing
    wages to be lowered by the monopolists, who control the big producing
    organizations, and whose land was already obtained when it was cheap. Consequently
    this basic structure of our current macroeconomics system, works to limit
    opportunity and to create poverty, see above reference.

    The most basic cause of our continuing poverty is the lack of properly paid
    work and the reason for this is the lack of opportunity of access to the land
    on which the work must be done. The useful land is monopolized by a landlord
    who either holds it out of use (for speculation in its rising value), or
    charges the tenant heavily for its right of access. In the case when the
    landlord is also the producer, he/she has a monopolistic control of the land
    and of the produce too, and can charge more for this access right than what an
    entrepreneur, who seeks greater opportunity, normally would be able to afford.

    A wise and sensible government would recognize that this problem derives from
    lack of opportunity to work and earn. It can be solved by the use of a tax
    system which encourages the proper use of land and which stops penalizing
    everything and everybody else. Such a tax system was proposed 136 years ago by
    Henry George, a (North) American economist, but somehow most macro-economists
    seem never to have heard of him, in common with a whole lot of other experts.
    (I would guess that they don’t want to know, which is worse!) In “Progress and
    Poverty” 1879, Henry George proposed a single tax on land values without other
    kinds of tax on produce, services, capital gains etc. This regime of land value
    tax (LVT) has 17 features which benefit almost everyone in the economy, except
    for landlords and banks, who/which do nothing productive and find that land
    dominance has its own reward.

    17 Aspects of LVT Affecting Government, Land Owners, Communities and

    Four Aspects for Government:

    1. LVT, adds to the national
    income as do other taxation systems, but it replaces them.

    2. The cost of collecting the LVT is less than for all of the production-related
    taxes–tax avoidance becomes impossible because the sites are visible to all.

    3. Consumers pay less for their
    purchases due to lower production costs (see below). This creates greater
    satisfaction with the management of national affairs.

    4. The national economy
    stabilizes—it no longer experiences the 18 year business boom/bust cycle, due
    to periodic speculation in land values (see below).

    Six Aspects Affecting Land Owners:

    5. LVT is progressive–owners of
    the most potentially productive sites pay the most tax.

    6. The land owner pays his LVT regardless of how his site is used. A large
    proportion of the ground-rent from tenants becomes the LVT, with the result
    that land has less sales-value but a significant “rental”-value (even
    when it is not used).

    7. LVT stops speculation in land prices and
    the withholding of land from proper use is not worthwhile.

    8. The introduction of LVT initially reduces the sales price of sites, even
    though their rental value can still grow over a longer term. As more sites
    become available, the competition for them is less fierce.

    9. With LVT, land owners are unable to pass the tax on to their tenants as rent
    hikes, due to the reduced competition for access to the additional sites that
    come into use.

    10. With LVT, land prices will
    initially drop. Speculators in land values will want to foreclose on their
    mortgages and withdraw their money for reinvestment. Therefore LVT should be
    introduced gradually, to allow these speculators sufficient time to transfer
    their money to company-shares etc., and simultaneously to meet the increased
    demand for produce (see below).

    Three Aspects Regarding Communities:

    11. With LVT, there is an
    incentive to use land for production or residence, rather than it being unused.

    12. With LVT, greater working opportunities exist due to cheaper land and a
    greater number of available sites. Consumer goods become cheaper too, because
    entrepreneurs have less difficulty in starting-up their businesses and because
    they pay less ground-rent–demand grows, unemployment decreases.

    13. Investment money is withdrawn from land and placed in durable capital
    goods. This means more advances in technology and cheaper goods too.

    Four Aspects About Ethics:

    14. The collection of taxes from
    productive effort and commerce is socially unjust. LVT replaces this extortion
    by gathering the surplus rental income, which comes without any exertion from
    the land owner or by the banks–LVT is a natural system of national income-gathering.

    15. Bribery and corruption on information
    about land cease. Before, this was due
    to the leaking of news of municipal plans for housing and industrial
    development, causing shock-waves in local land prices (and municipal workers’ and
    lawyers’ bank balances).

    16. The improved use of the more
    central land reduces the environmental damage due to a) unused sites
    being dumping-grounds, and b) the smaller amount of fossil-fuel use, when
    traveling between home and workplace.

    17. Because the LVT eliminates
    the advantage that landlords currently hold over our society, LVT provides a
    greater equality of opportunity to earn a living. Entrepreneurs can operate in
    a natural way– to provide more jobs. Then earnings will correspond to the
    value that the labor puts into the product or service. Consequently, after LVT
    has been properly introduced it will eliminate poverty and improve business