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Sexual Politics and Trade Unions

By Ferrier, Carole | Hecate, January 1, 2000 | Go to article overview

Sexual Politics and Trade Unions


Ferrier, Carole, Hecate


Sexual Politics and Trade Unions

In this special focus, we aim to bring attention to existing pathways and to create or uncover new connections between feminism and trade unionism. Our standpoint is not so much one of feminists offering critiques of the trade union movement from the outside, valuable as that is; rather, we address the issues, questions and problems of women and paid work in relation both to trade unions and to the wider women's movement. We hope to `throw a rope bridge'(1) across the divide that too often prevents collaborative politics between feminists in different locations. When connections are made, creative and productive possibilities become available, as the contributions to this issue show.

Women have long had to struggle to become members of unions and to gain recognition of their needs and interests in opposition to men's attempts to exclude them. This struggle continues. The dominance of the labour movement by men workers and unionists sees power understood in men's terms. Paid work, political activism and leadership are regarded as men's business. This is sexual politics.

At the same time, it seems that union women have to struggle to gain recognition of their political concerns by the contemporary women's movement. Unions are a `terrain of struggle that has been eschewed by many feminists.'(2) Marilyn Lake's recent history of Australian feminism mentions Working Women's Centres, but does not list trade unions or the labour movement in its index, although a chapter on work discusses feminist campaigns, with some union support for the right to work and equal pay, in the 1930s and 40s.(3) Joan Eveline and Lorraine Hayden's collection on women's leadership and activism in Australia includes one union official, Helen Creed, Secretary of the Australian Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers Union in Western Australia and another, Pat Giles, who had been an official before she became a Federal Senator.(4) The large Oxford University Press anthology, Feminisms, claims to be comprehensive and devoted to new possibilities for political action, but none of its 86 sections reflects on struggles around paid work or workers' associations such as trade unions.(5)

In 1997, Barbara Pocock wrote in the preface to Strife: Sex and Politics in Labour Unions that gender politics are not new to trade unions but now have a sharpened dimension since union survival hinges on the recruitment and the retention of women members in the growing areas of paid work, the part time, casual and service sectors.(6) However, Judy Wajcman's recent survey of research on gender in British industrial relations demonstrates that gender issues remain marginal to much of the current work.(7) Worse, where gender is included it is generally conflated with `women.' The Australian situation is no different. Not only are men as men obscured by this formulation, but also the active politics of resistance and hostility towards women (and non-heterosexual men) is completely hidden.

`Sexual politics' emphasises the combative and antagonistic dynamic of gender relations. `Sexual politics' describes the complex gender relationships of power as domination, resistance, alliances and pleasures that are central to all social institutions, including the trade union movement; it is constituted and contested in specific ways that shift and change. We believe (like most feminist writers) that sexual politics and gender relations must be central to analysis and politics in and around labour movements, and that they are crucial to the success of strategic responses to the critical problems facing workers and labour movements. This raises difficult questions for feminists about how union women confront issues of sexual politics while remaining committed to codes of solidarity. How do women experience themselves within unions? What does union power mean for women leaders, and what kind of authority is available to women?

Perhaps part of the difficulty for feminists stems from the way unionists are represented, in addition to the explicitly masculinised culture of the trade union movement.

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