A safe space for women in the labour movement? Unison conference debates.

By Lynne Moffat, Unison activist

I am still angry about the discussion we had at Unison conference and the outcome. I am also still upset and  disappointed .

We discussed an uncontroversial motion about organising women in the labour movement, actively supporting young women, buddying systems and many other ways. We also discussed an amendment which should have been uncontroversial, sadly it wasn’t.

This is the text of the amendment:

We believe that our trade union has the potential to transform society for the better. Therefore we have a particular responsibility to confront and challenge male violence against women within our movement.

Male violence against women is not acceptable in any case. It must not be tolerated from those who hold office or power in our movement. We recognise the enormous challenges faced by women victims of male violence, and the pressures which women face, including from abusive men, not to complain about violence and abuse.

We therefore believe that, when women complain of male violence within our movement, our trade union should start from a position of believing women. We believe that all women who complain of male violence have the right to be listened to and supported.

Review existing practice and subsequently issue guidance to all Unison bodies about how to respond to male violence against women in our movement.

Prior to the discussion about the amendment, our main concern was the SWP. The NEC were supporting it. The SWP’s official line was ‘support with qualifications’ yes I thought the whole ‘support with qualifications’ thing was beurocratic bullshit too, the SWP agreed with this until it didn’t suit them anymore. They had even argued on the NEC that this should be their position.

So what were the ‘qualifications’? Apparently the idea of ‘believing’ women when they make disclosures of domestic violence, harassment or sexual violence is controversial. The argument is that this interferes with  due process and changes the presumption  of innocence.

I find the lack of understanding of the barriers women face when coming forward shocking. A lack of acknowledgement that whenever women come forward they have their previous relationships, sexual history, drinking habits & mental health brought into question. They doubt themselves and don’t expect to be believed. When a union member comes to you saying they’re being bullied or harassed (male or female) do you say “I’m afraid I need to look at the evidence before I decide”,  or do you listen, be supportive and plan how to support them.  All different when it comes to male violence against women, apparently…..

The first speeches against the motion were all about the fact it focuses solely on male violence against women. There are so many problems with this I almost don’t know where to start.

Women are the main victims of domestic violence -fact.
Two women die a week as a result of domestic violence-fact.
We live in a society where women’s oppression and sexism is a daily part of life. Capitalism needs us to be kept in our place.
Nothing in this amendment suggests other types of violence will be ignored or discounted (those victims might like to be believed too). In fact quite the opposite reassurance was given that they would be included.

The majority of speakers in favour of the amendment (notably SWP & SP) made so many qualifications that at times I got confused at one point saying “speaker against” to another member of my delegation only to be reminded “yes the last speaker was in favour” – this speaks volumes.

This made the whole debate very confusing. In addition to this sadly many delegations (the majority) come without a mandate and without any discussion about how to vote. Without a delegation lead or any sense that voting is anymore than their individual opinion.

The fact that this amendment was controversial and was defeated is in my opinion shocking and disgraceful. It is however useful in showing us a mirror up to ourselves in the labour movement and the left. We need to understand where we are honestly before we fight to change it.

Unison has  official equality structures but what it doesn’t have is vibrant self-organisation, real democracy and a rank-and-file organisation which unites people to fight the cuts but engages with them on other issues including the struggle for women’s liberation. Let this serve as a wake up call.

About womensfightback17

Women’s Fightback is a socialist feminist paper and blog produced by members and supporters of the socialist group Workers' Liberty. Workers’ Liberty is a revolutionary socialist organisation fighting as part of the labour and student movements, and in campaigns, for a socialist alternative to capitalism, based on common ownership and democracy.

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