Equality, Diversity and Disadvantage in Employment

By Mike Noon; Emmanuel Ogbonna | Go to book overview
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9 Gender Equality and
Trade Unions: A New
Basis for Mobilisation?

Trevor Colling and Linda Dickens*

The promotion of employment equality by trade unions is especially important in the UK. Although legal regulation of the employment relationship has increased, the individualised, private law model characteristic of the UK means legal rights can often remain merely formal entitlements.In the absence of a general labour inspectorate for monitoring and enforcing legal protections, the UK system largely leaves employers and trade unions to translate statute and case law voluntarily through collective bargaining.The recent history of such equality bargaining, and the prospects for it, are the core themes of this chapter.

Unionised workforces are generally characterised by less-marked inequalities than non-union ones, yet collective bargaining and equality historically have not been linked in a wholly positive way. The process of bargaining generally has been male-dominated and agreements have tended to formalise and perpetuate gendered inequalities rather than challenge them. Through the 1980s a paradox emerged.With public policy prioritising deregulation and individualisation of the employment relationship, the scope and depth of collective bargaining diminished with adverse implications for equality overall. This hostile environment for trade unions, however, fostered a greater willingness to address the interests of women members, both current and potential. Unions, it could be said, 'discovered' the need to act effectively on behalf of women at a time when their ability to do so was particularly constrained.

The change in government in May 1997 brought a new approach to joint regulation (including collective bargaining) and to gender equality.

This chapter is informed by our previous investigations of trade unions and equality (for example, Colling and Dickens, 1989); research undertaken as part of a Europe-wide study of equal opportunities and collective bargaining (Colling, 1997; Dickens, 1998; Colling and Dickens, 1998); as well as by review of secondary materials.


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