As a minority in male-dominated workplaces, we’ve felt for a long time that women in RMT’s London Transport region need to get organised.
January’s RMT women’s training event in London was the first step in that direction. It was organised by AWL members in the RMT alongside the Workers’ Educational Association.
The day was a huge success. For many, it was the first union event they had attended.
In the first session we identified important issues for us: “sexist banter” at work, childcare, women’s health issues forcing women out of employment. Many women told stories of being put-down for being outspoken and opinionated, accused of “overreacting” for standing up for themselves.
In the afternoon we heard the results of RMT’s survey on sexism at work. Most women had responded saying there is a sexist culture in their workplace which management do not tackle. Examples of comments heard by women at work included: “the only place for a woman on the railway is the canteen”, “Women are not technically minded and should stick to admin work” and “Women get pregnant to avoid working”.
We followed this with a workshop to discuss different scenarios of sexism in the workplace. This gave rise to some great ideas for tackling sexism in the future. One was a pocket “know your rights” guide, full of insults to throw back at sexist men. We had fun sharing our favourite put-downs. One of the delegates was immediately inspired to design a poster with the slogan, “sexism at work: it’s no joke!”, which should send out a message from every messroom noticeboard.
When discussing how flirtation can blur into sexual harassment, one delegate, who is a union harassment officer, said management’s harassment advisors increasingly pressure complainants to drop their case, making it more important than ever that all union reps can challenge harassment. Hopefully we can organise more training for reps on this.
The highlight of the day was hearing Louise Raw speak about the Bow Matchwomen’s strike.
We were all spell-bound to hear how a group of confident women had faced down sexism and taken part in the first strike of mostly women workers in British trade union history.
Finding out that there is no festival to commemorate the strike, and that the 125th anniversary is next year, we decided to write a motion to take to our RMT Women’s Conference. We wrote it in the class-room and one of us passed it through her branch the following day.
This course felt like the start of women becoming more confident and organised, and of making our presence felt in our own union. It was fun and inspiring to meet a group of assertive women who take no nonsense.
It’s ironic to think that in a predominantly male union, which almost prides itself on its macho culture, the strongest members are probably the often-overlooked women.