Making our voice heard in the unions

Submitted by Matthew on 9 February, 2011 - 3:59

In January Janine Booth became the first ever woman to be elected to the London Transport seat on the National Council of Executives of the railworkers union, the RMT. Becky Crocker spoke to Janine about the election and organising women in a male-dominated industry.

JB: Several women members have contacted me to say my election has given them a boost and made them feel there is a place for them in the union.

It has been dispiriting to see so few women in union leadership positions — I am the first from my region, and only the third woman to serve on the RMT executive. The union has never had any female officers. It is important that this is starting to change. People rightly say that we should elect the best candidate for the job, but it’s hard to believe that this has only ever been a woman on three occasions!

BC: RMT is a male-dominated union representing a male-dominated industry. Do you think you were faced with additional challenges as a woman candidate?

JB: London Transport workers voted for the person they saw as best representing their interests, regardless of gender. They liked what I said about providing a stronger voice for the rank-and-file and building a more effective, democratic union.

A very small number of activists campaigned against me using my part-time status as an argument, but others took a firm stand against that. It is a positive sign that the big majority of members didn’t let sexism poison their voting choices.

But there are obstacles to women’s involvement in the union, way before you’d even consider standing for the Executive.

Juggling shiftwork, caring responsibilities and union activity can be impossible! If you go to a branch meeting and find that you are the only woman there, it can be very off-putting. But, we have lots of strong women members and activists in the region, and probably more women reps than ever.

BC: How well do you feel the RMT currently campaigns on women’s issues, and how do you hope your election will change things?

JB: There is definitely room for improvement. Women face specific issues at work — from sexual harassment to toilet provision, and the woeful lack of childcare provision and “family-friendly” policies. Women are concentrated in some of the most exploited and low-paid jobs in our industry, for example in contracted-out cleaning and catering services.

The union needs to step up organising in these grades and on these issues. We have a “Women's Charter”, but it needs to become a real tool for fighting for improvements for women at work.

We could also be more active on broader women’s issues from abortion rights to international solidarity. I plan to make sure that when women raise issues through the union’s Women’s Advisory Committee, more is done to create vibrant, relevant campaigns.

BC: How are the cuts affecting women in the transport industry?

JB: Although more women have joined the industry over recent decades, we now face that being thrown into reverse by job cuts in grades most popular with women — admin, ticket-selling, stations. Moreover, women workers face losing the services we rely on outside work like nurseries or carers’ support services.

To help push through cuts without resistance, the government is planning to attack our employment and union rights, scant though they already are.

BC: How do you see the unions shaping up to fight the cuts?

JB: RMT is more willing to fight than some other unions. We need the whole trade union movement to take up the battle against cuts, to be militant against the government and the employers. Unions need to fight the battles in their own industries, but also unite with each other and working-class community groups. This means involving women workers as well as men; migrant workers and the unemployed.

It is also important that rank-and-file workers organise to ensure that their unions act effectively and that within that, women workers make sure that our voice is heard.

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