Women and the union – A factory in west-London

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We wrote this for fellow workers of the IWW New Syndicalist: https://newsyndicalist.org/2018/11/19/tmm3-women-the-factory-and-the-union/

Women make up around 60% of the 800 workers in my factory. They are all migrant women – older women mainly from Gujarat and Sri Lanka, younger women from Eastern Europe. In the 1970s, 58% of all Indian women in the U.K. worked in manufacturing. This huge figure still seems true in my part of west London. They form the lowest rung of the labour market, while at the same time, its backbone. The wages are low, hovering around the minimum wage, the hours long, and the work is tough.

In my workplace, which makes ready meals for all the major supermarkets, the work roles are mostly strictly gendered. Only women work on the assembly line, unless there is a machine that needs to be operated, in which case, a man steps in. This machine usually only requires you to press a button every 2 seconds but is still seen as a man’s job. Machine operators make slightly more money and men take up more supervisory positions. This may be because men speak slightly better English and have better reading and writing skills. This is a result of their more privileged status in terms of access to schooling, as well as social spaces where they can develop these skills. But discrimination and sexism definitely play a major part because there are many male team leaders whose English skills and general competency are actually pretty poor. They get away with poor performance because they are automatically seen as more competent and subsequently are given more opportunities to advance. I am the only female forklift driver across the five London sites of this company. I can confidently say that there is no reason why other women could not do this job. The forklift does all the heavy work. But women are never offered the chance to get a licence. One woman even asked, but was laughed at.

Unfortunately, many women themselves uphold this system. If they see a woman doing a ‘man’s job’ or vice versa, they are quick to step in and shame the individual into stopping. One reason is that they do not want to take on extra work. At the same time, by reproducing the gendered work tasks, they make it easier for the management to exploit the differences amongst the workforce that keeps women’s pay the lowest and devalues their skills.

The food manufacturing sector is a hard place to work, not just because of the general conditions (loud, fast, too hot/cold and smelly) but because of the way the whole sector is organised (reliant on global supply chains and just in time production and storage). This makes the market unpredictable (for example we are in the midst of a global shortage of vine leaves) and safety scares and product recalls jeopardise contracts with the big supermarkets. At the moment the food manufacturing market is contending with rising prices for raw materials from Europe because of the sinking pound, as well as rising competition from the discount retailers, Aldi and Lidl. In the efforts to keep costs down, efficiency is sought through keeping labour costs low, not investing in new machinery or technologies, stealing peoples’ wages (through payroll ‘errors’ that hardly ever are in the worker’s favour), cutting corners, especially in terms of health and safety, making workers do more for the same pay, and working faster. As a result, you have a daily system of organised chaos. Machines break down, people are off sick, new agency people are always trying to figure out what is going on because nobody has the time or inclination to train them, people are stressed and take it out on each other. Fights break out. People lose their rag. In this environment, bullying is commonplace and workers spend a lot of the day stressed out. An ambulance comes to our factory about once every six weeks.

Women are supervised more because they must stay on the line whereas men, even though their work may be just as tedious, can at least wander around a bit. Men’s tasks in the factory generally have a wider range of motion, which is a godsend when you spend ten hours a day doing the same thing over and over again. Men’s work is seen as more skilled and is higher paid. Many men are managers and have the right to shout at women and tell them what to do. While many women will shout at their direct managers and kick up a fuss in the moment if something happens on the line, they also do not openly support each other in difficult situations e.g. if a woman is being singled out for bullying, or some women are told to move department against their wishes. All these factors make it the perfect breeding ground for bad behaviour by men in positions of power in particular. It is easy for men to take advantage of women in the generally terrible work situation, and the way things are organised inside the factory encourages this. For example, there are quite a few cases of managers sleazing over young female agency workers, who are seen to be more ‘available’ but also are more likely to be stoic because a complaint from a manager means they won’t be offered more shifts.

Unless women start supporting each other and speaking out, taking out grievances against bullying and unjust behaviours, refusing to be stigmatised and acting together to reverse the power imbalances, things will be slow to change. It was in this perfect storm that I became a union rep.

The Union

The GMB union was formally recognised by the company after a long struggle in 2005. Since then, workers have relatively little to show for it. There is not much worker engagement in the union, which is seen as doing nothing apart from elevating a few workers to a higher status within the factory as they go about their ‘rep duties’ (e.g. accompanying people to disciplinaries). These reps’ main role has been as conduits between management and workers – as middle men who can talk to workers in their own languages and diffuse workers’ discontent. In return, they are not expected to do as much work and have an elevated social status within the factory.

The ineffectiveness of the union over the last thirteen years has been the result of various factors: certain reps have been allowed to do the bare minimum with little vision or expectation of fighting for something better; the reps’ adherence to processes and procedures which delay and obfuscate and the workers’ themselves allowing this situation to continue so that apathy and cynicism is their main attitude to the union and the possibility to change things. Any eruption of anger and discontent is quickly channelled into formal processes that disempower workers. For example, the 100+ grievances against a recent skill grade change have still not been heard, almost a year after they were first put in. Finally, management have enlisted union reps into their own company structures (e.g. their ‘Staff and Employee Forum’ which is a parallel structure set up to ‘get the worker’s voice’ on company matters). This is an obvious way to bypass the union’s own structures and keep reps close to management’s sympathies (they are paid to attend meetings and treated to nice food at events outside of work but during work time). Reps agree because they like to be seen as having some power (they like being seen hobnobbing with managers and so on). In my factory, they are almost all higher caste Hindus, which also adds another level of hierarchy within the workforce.

The most recent pay negotiation was the final nail in the coffin for many workers. A new pay grade structure was announced and backed by the union which divided workers into four new pay brackets (surprise, surprise, with women assembly line workers coming off worst as their contribution was categorised as ‘unskilled’). Hygiene workers, who are mainly made up of Sri Lankan and Somali men, were also pushed to the bottom, despite the requirement that they undergo COSHH (Control of Substances Hazardous to Health) training because they deal with chemicals. Understandably, workers who do not see their interests being served voted with their feet and have left the union in droves.

When I became a rep, it was in the first election in eight years. The incumbent (male) head shop steward inside my factory now presides over a team of 7 reps for the day shift and 3 for the night shift. Of the ten of us in total, it was a 50/50 split between men and women. Equality! Or maybe not… The head shop stewards in all the factories are men. The union convener is male. The GMB full time organisers are all men. This brings with it the usual problems, namely that they like to hear the sound of their own voices and have never offered childcare to members to attend meetings. But the main problem is their incompetence, which is not because they are men, although of course, men’s socialisation and general position in society has given them a shameless belief in their own self-importance, despite all evidence to the contrary. This incompetence is the main reason women, and all those workers labelled ‘unskilled’, have no inclination to get involved in the union.

The question is: how have they maintained these positions for so long, with so little to show for it? And what are the prospects for involving, not just more women, but the disaffected workforce more widely into the union and / or becoming more active in their workplaces?

Why are women under-represented in the union?

Linked to the fact that the union has little to show for the membership fees they collect is the fact that they do not seem interested in engaging their workforce substantively. On top of the double burden of domestic duties and childcare, it would only be worth getting involved in the union if it showed itself capable of actually enacting real change on the shop floor. So far, it (like most unions) has failed.

There is probably also the assumption that men have the knowledge to undertake union work – even though evidence points to the contrary. Women undoubtedly feel less confident in certain situations. When we had an impromptu meeting outside the factory to support the women who had been made to move department against their wishes, only men turned up. This is exacerbated by the work process itself, which belittles women. Lots of factory work is mentally unchallenging, devalued, monotonous, and exhausting. When I worked on the assembly lines as an agency worker, after a couple of months I noticed that I felt smaller. I walked less confidently than I did before. The knowledge that you are lowest in the pecking order impacts on your sense of self and sense of your own power. While this is true of all workers in shitty jobs, it is acutely so for women workers.

Working in a place where you don’t actually need to speak English because you can talk to many people in your own language often translates into introversion and fear when it comes to dealing with HR. Living in a country where you cannot speak the language often (but not always) fuels a lack of confidence, especially when it comes to speaking out to an audience not in your language circle and those perceived to be of a higher social rank/status, like managers. Getting involved in the union would mean having to overcome these fears, as well as the double burden women face mentioned earlier.

There are other reasons why people may not wish to be associated with the union, for example, not wanting to be seen as a trouble-maker because your visa status depends on a minimum level of income. But the main problem in my factory is not so much that all women do not get involved, more that only certain types of women have. And, similarly to men, it is not because of some altruistic reason (wanting to help others and improve the work situation for everyone) or a political reason (to bring down the class enemy) but rather because they see it as a way to become closer to management and have a higher status within the factory world. This is not to say we shouldn’t encourage more women to lead and participate, but the focus should be on making unions relevant to their workforce.

The GMB has self-organised groups within the larger union for equalities groups, including women in GMB Sisters. They hold a conference every year for new women members, with the aim of increasing their participation (e.g. to take up rep positions). I went to the last one but was disappointed at the focus on union campaigns relevant to women (e.g. period poverty) rather than women’s actual experiences at work and how they can start organising with their co-workers. The one exercise we did about how to go about tackling a workplace issue (usually around sexual harassment) was based on fictional case studies rather than our own collective experiences in the conference room. There was a pro-feminist stance eschewed throughout the programme, which ordinarily would have been great, but on this occasion it bugged me. I think this was because the conference, whose existence was driven by an inclusion agenda, ironically seemed to ghettoise us.

The other problem I had with it was that it was an example of putting the cart before the horse. A whole equalities structure has been developed, with union branches now having to have an officer for each of the equalities strands, without it being clear what their role is. At my branch meeting, I was cornered into becoming the women’s officer because nobody else wanted to do it. But it is a paper exercise. When I asked one of the organisers of the conference what it actually meant, she was not able to give me an answer. The idea seems to be ‘get an officer first’ and think about what to do with your position later. This is all very well, although any decent workplace rep or organiser should be doing this anyway. I work in a predominately female workforce which is being royally shafted. Building their power is essential to building the union. To make this more substantive, women’s officers’ work should emerge from the organic organising process at work rather than as an externally imposed position whose main drive, I assume, is to ‘involve more women’ without a rooted workplace strategy to go along with it. As such it easily becomes a tokenistic position.

The main problem with unions is not that they don’t listen to women’s voices per se – after all, the union movement is awash with women from different backgrounds, much more so in my experience than left groups and feminist organisations. Rather they don’t listen or encourage grassroots workers’ voice or self-organisation at all. They focus more on recruitment to the extent that ‘organising’ and ‘recruitment’ are used interchangeably. This gives rise to an over dependence on certain reps, male or female, to be the ‘organic leaders’ that drive membership and become the spokespeople for everyone. This is problematic because in my workplace, the reps who are elected, male and female, in a supposedly ‘democratic’ process (1), are all of a higher caste, and hold supervisory positions. There is a massive conflict of interest in the fact that they are the ones who are put into the bullying positions (making people work faster, saying no to holiday requests, messing up people’s pay) at the same time as ‘defending workers’ rights.’

This is why the ‘organic leader’ strategy is so dubious. It has become popular lately largely because of Jane McAlevey and her books ‘No Shortcuts’ and ‘Raising Expectations (And Raising Hell)’ and has been largely and rather uncritically adopted by the left. Obviously there are some people who have a bigger voice in a workplace and can convince people to do things. But in my factory, those people are all supervisors and / or union reps. McAlevey makes a distinction between the supposed leaders and the real, organic leaders, but in my experience, it is not possible to distinguish between them. The workers who are ‘respected’ are respected because they are close to management and have extra privileges. In a contradictory way, they are listened to, but people also have little faith or trust in them. The sad thing is that this is still more faith and trust than they have in themselves. As organisers, do we really want to reproduce the leadership model, when it will do little to tackle the profound lack of trust people have in themselves and other working class people?

I found this lack of trust in working people’s ability to use their collective strength in the workplace in the Women’s Strike. The assumption is that strikes are not possible or relevant to modern women, and that traditional strikes are male and anachronistic. But in my factory, to say that the strike as withdrawal of labour is only relevant to old or dead men is doing a massive disservice to the women I work with, and the millions of women who do similar work. The idea of a ‘social strike’ as an alternative is meaningless to the women I work with unless it was rooted in building power at work. But the left has no interest getting rooted ‘where the women are’. If they did, they would see that ‘giving up housework for a day’ will remain the preserve of a small section of clued up women with the resources to do so.

The fact is, gimmicks won’t work. You can sell the union as a vehicle for personal and individual empowerment but unless women see unions as viable vehicles of making their day-to-day work lives better, they do not have the time, resources or inclination to join. Especially if you feel you have little control over your life in general anyway. Again, this is relevant to all workers, but women especially have the most to gain. We saw the possibility to change the tide with the famous strikes at Grunwick and Gate Gourmet. But these cases show that union involvement will only get you so far, the women felt sold out in the end. The challenge will be to prepare us and our colleagues to organise ourselves independently, always aware that at a certain point the union will not be willing or able to be a tool of our struggle.

(1) https://workerswildwest.files.wordpress.com/2018/02/bakkavor-bulletin-issue-3.pdf

Other relevant links:

Working class women series for International Women’s Day 2018: https://libcom.org/files/Womens%20series%20FINAL%20collated.pdf

Book review of ‘Striking Women’: https://angryworkersworld.wordpress.com/2018/09/13/the-limits-of-intersectionality-angryworkers-book-review-of-striking-women-struggles-and-strategies-of-south-asian-women-workers-from-grunwick-to-gate-gourmet-by-sundari-anitha-and-ruth-pe/

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